Primary Source Adventures
Shelby County: the Regulator Moderator War
The Shelby County War would be remembered as one of the bloodiest and earliest feuds in Texas history. Even after open warfare ended, hostilities simmered between the former factions and would not fully be put aside until the United States war with Mexico, when former Moderators and Regulators joined Captain L. H. Mabbit’s company serving under General Zachary Taylor. Students will be able to explore the Shelby County War through personal accounts, historic documents, and primary source images.
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Shelby County: the Regulator Moderator War
by Vale Fitzpatrick
John W. Middleton wrote History of the Regulators and Moderators, his memoir, in his seventy-fifth year. In it he proudly claims that he has been a citizen of Texas ever since June 1837 and was a direct participant in the Shelby County conflict but he admits that many years have passed since the events in question. His goal in writing this memoir was to give future historians of early Texas “his guidance of the facts,” he further desired “to correct the errors which had arisen in regard to the causes of the Shelby County War” fought through 1841-44.1 Middleton clearly believes the Regulators were on the right side as he and others upheld law and order with their defense of this, “new country and. . . the advancement of its moral condition.”2
Middleton’s account is the only surviving record by a direct participant of the Regulator-Moderator War. He states that Colonel Charles Watt Moorman wrote the “only fair and true narrative” unfortunately it was destroyed or lost, and due to his death could not be reproduced.3 Middleton settled in Shelby County in 1837, after a string of business losses left him “dissatisfied and desirous” to try his fortune in a new country.4 He recalled “The country was thinly settled and the condition of society disagreeable, as there were many settlers who were fugitives from justice in the United States.” The difficulty that would give birth to the Regulator-Moderator War began when Charles W. Jackson killed Jo Goodbread, because the latter had been treating to kill him. Jackson surrendered to the authorities of Panola County but was acquitted. This outraged friends of Goodbread, who tried to assassinate Jackson but failed because he was guarded too heavily.
Jackson’s supporters, angered by the attempted assassination, went to the residences of Strickland and McFadgin to kill them, however, they were absent and so the mob burned their houses. Outraged, Strickland and McFadgin organized a gang and elected a commanding officer, Judge John M. Hawkins. He gave them the name Moderators. They ambushed and killed Jackson along with his traveling companion, a Shelbyville storekeeper. The sheriff of Shelby County, fearing for his life, fled to Nacogdoches, and Middleton was appointed as deputy sheriff. After the murder of Jackson, others established the Shelby Guards, known as the Regulators, led by Colonel Moorman. Their initial goal was the elimination of those responsible for Jackson’s murder. Many upstanding citizens joined the Regulators and decided that their first efforts would be directed to eliminating or running off some of the dregs of the county.
The Regulators, seeking vengeance, captured the McFadgin near the town of Montgomery, except for Bill McFadgin who was shot along with his friend Bledsoe. The Moderators retaliated by having the Judge of Crockett County issue arrest warrants for Middleton, Moorman, and three other Regulators. Three-fourths of the people of Crockett County supported the Moderators and formed a posse to rescue the McFadgin. The Regulators fled to Shelby County, where locals held a meeting and all 174 participants voted to execute the McFadgin, except the youngest. In retaliation, Middleton was ambushed in the woods near his house and shot twice although badly wounded, he escaped. One of his ambushers, Jim Strickland was later killed in Louisiana for stealing slaves.
The Regulators, headquartered in Shelbyville, by 1842 boasted a membership of nearly two hundred. Moderators John M. Bradley and John Haley hired a group of assassins from Austin to kill seventeen prominent men in Shelby County. Henry Reynolds, a Regulator, was assassinated by these hired killers. Unfortunately for the Moderators one of the assassins was caught and gave a full confession, naming who hired him and who were the targets, before he was hung. In response, Sheriff Llewellyn and Judge S. F. Lester issued arrest warrants for Moorman and the other leaders of the Regulators. Sheriff Llewellyn tried to arrest Moorman, who stated that he needed two or three days to decide whether he wanted to be arrested. Llewellyn gave him that time. Moorman wasted none of it and quickly assembled fifty Regulators to resist. Meanwhile Judge John Ingram, a Regulator, found the warrants issued against the Regulator leaders technically incorrect and dismissed them. He then issued new warrants against the Moderator leaders. The Moderators returned the favor by having Judge Lester dismiss the warrants against them.
With the law supporting each side, outright violence between the factions was the next step. The Moderators favored direct assault and planned to ride into Shelbyville to kill the leaders of the Regulators while intimidating the residents. They killed only one of the Regulator leaders; the rest of the Regulator leaders escaped. The following day a force numbering between thirty-five to sixty-five Regulators attacked the Moderators in what would become the battle of Hilliard, an action lasting the day. Middleton claims that the Moderators numbered nearly two hundred and suffered sixteen killed and twenty-five were known to have been wounded.5 Historian C. L. Sonnichsen, author of 10 Texas Feuds, states both sides probably numbered around 65 men.6 The Moderators withdrew and fought a short inconclusive battle near Shelbyville, where the Regulators forced them to flee.
Following the battle, at a meeting of the Regulators, Middleton suggested notifying the surrounding counties of what was happening and advising them to arm and organize to protect themselves. President Sam Houston of the Republic of Texas determined to end this feud before it spread further. He called out 1,500 militia under the command of General James Smith and sent them to Shelby County. Ten leaders from each side were captured and forced to sign a peace treaty, and the Regulators and Moderators were forced to disband, which ended the war.7 Though sporadic incidents of violence continued for some time, it never again approached its previous level.
1John W. Middleton, History of the Regulators and Moderators and the Shelby County War in 1841-1842 in the Republic of Texas. (Fort Worth: Loving Publishing Company, 1883), Preface, 5.
6C.L. Sonnichsen, 10 Texas Feuds. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000), 47.