Remains of the Day
I thought I knew everything about history until I strolled through the Texas State Cemetery, where Stephen F. Austin holds court, the Confederacy lives on, and the greatest shortstop ever is waiting to be discovered.
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In the northeast corner of the Texas State Cemetery, in a plot far removed from the other graves, rest the remains of Antonio Briones, a Mexican immigrant who fought on the Union side during the Civil War. Briones was a private in the 1st Texas Cavalry, a unit organized by the reviled Yankee general and future Reconstruction governor of Texas, Edmund J. Davis, who is buried in a busier, older part of the cemetery. Briones died in 1938, but he wasn’t buried here until 1999, following a request by his great-great-grandson. He is the last of the Union soldiers to be so honored: Several dozen of them were here until the 1890’s, when the federal government dug them up and moved them to Fort Sam Houston, apparently with little resistance from the cemetery’s governing body. Today there is just Briones, Davis, and one other poor Yankee, which is still three too many for some Texans. Contrast Briones’s lonely grave with the 2,200 white headstones of Confederate veterans and some of their wives on the opposite side of the grounds, and you begin to understand the unique, not to say schizophrenic, history of Texas.
This is not exactly the lesson that the late lieutenant governor Bob Bullock had in mind in the mid-nineties, when he ramrodded a long-overdue renovation of the Austin cemetery. Bullock loved everything about Texas, living or dead, but the cemetery engaged his deepest passions. He used to climb over the fence at night and talk to the tombstones. Now he’s a permanent resident, buried behind Stephen F. Austin and between the graves of Stephen Williams, one of two veterans of the American Revolution, and Edward Burleson, a Republic of Texas general and Indian killer who was the cemetery’s first occupant, in 1851. Bullock dreamed that a revitalized cemetery would become a tourist destination, sacred ground with the allure of the Alamo and the Capitol, where schoolchildren strolling among the graves of fallen heroes would learn more than they ever could in a classroom. And so it came to be, though the lessons don’t always conform to orthodoxy and, in a twist of fate that might have pleased a contrarian such as Bullock, can be absorbed more compellingly at the nearby Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which opened in 2001, two years after his death.
Nevertheless, the cemetery is a walk through time, a place that reveals all that is great, courageous, tragic, pompous, and absurd about Texas, its living spirit, if you will. In its early days, the guidelines for who was eligible for burial were vague: Generally, it was limited to those who had held statewide office or had been granted a governor’s proclamation or named in a concurrent resolution by the Legislature. Later it welcomed Confederate veterans who moved here because the state had promised to house, feed, and finally bury them. Until 1997, when the Legislature expanded the list to include those who had contributed to the arts and culture, its occupants were mostly statesmen like Austin or warriors like Burleson.
But to this day there are no Indians, only two Jews, and just a handful of blacks, Hispanics, or Asians, reminding us that the people who ruled this state until very recently were white men of Christian faith. This will change, no doubt, as the state matures, as we put more distance between the Texas of the twenty-first century and our fiery frontier past. The prominent minorities already buried here— including Barbara Jordan, the first black woman to serve in the state Senate; Willie “El Diablo” Wells, perhaps the greatest shortstop who ever lived, black or white; and Hipolito “Hippo” Garcia, the first Mexican American appointed to the federal bench in the Western District of Texas—will be joined by luminaries such as former UT Longhorns football great Johnny “Lam” Jones. My longtime friend A. R. “Babe” Schwartz, who for years represented Galveston in the Legislature, has a plot reserved, as does his wife, Marilyn. And while Babe’s request to be buried facedown—“so that those who never got the chance can kiss my ass”—will hopefully be honored, he will not, as he sometimes says, be the first Jew. That distinction was claimed in 1935 by Jacob De Cordova, one of the founders of Waco.
Most of the women buried here were the wives of famous men and are memorialized as afterthoughts. “She Was Ever Loyal” is how author Bertha McKee Dobie is remembered on the tombstone she shares with her better-known husband, J. Frank Dobie. One notable exception is Joanna Troutman, the daughter of a prosperous Georgia innkeeper, who sewed the “Texas and Liberty” Lone Star flag that Georgia volunteers carried into battle. Troutman’s needlework found its way to Goliad, where Colonel James Fannin, upon learning of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, raised it as the national flag of Texas.
Troutman never visited Texas during her lifetime, but her remains were moved here in 1913, along with those of other pioneer patriots such as Austin and John Wharton, who rode with Terry’s Texas Rangers. The bodies were transplanted on orders from Governor Oscar Branch Colquitt, who decided that the state cemetery was the proper venue for the Father of Texas, not to mention our Betsy Ross. Even in the Progressive Era of the early 1900’s, this was a bold decision, and it essentially changed the character of the state cemetery from a Confederate memorial to a place that celebrated the Republic of Texas and all that it promised. A bronze statue by Pompeo Coppini stands atop Troutman’s granite marker, and on three sides are plaques that list the more than three hundred Texans who were “murdered”—let’s not mince words—at the Battle of Goliad by Mexican troops under Santa Anna.
The Texas state cemetery pops up like something out of a summer dream, an ethereal vision set against a quiet neighborhood of small groceries, Mexican restaurants, and old homes just east of downtown Austin, across Interstate 35, between Seventh and Eleventh streets and framed by Navasota and Comal streets. A beautiful and tranquil expanse of hills, dales, pathways, and towering oaks, its 21 acres are roughly bisected east-west by a meandering, recirculating pond and north-south by the shortest state highway in Texas. Texas Highway 165 is a flag-bedecked stretch that runs from Eleventh, through a gate in the Columbarium Wall, past a rose garden, then makes a left-hand turn and expires on Comal, less than a quarter of a mile from where it originated. It was a ratty old road to nowhere when Bullock took charge. He might have ordered it plowed up except for a fortuitous discovery that where a state road passes through a historic site, federal funds are available for renovation: Bullock was able to bill Uncle Sam for 80 percent of the cost of remodeling the state’s crumbling burial ground. This is the only highway in Texas, by the way, that closes at five o’clock, the time the gates are locked. But the cemetery is otherwise open to the public 365 days a year, free of charge. (Guided tours are provided Monday through Friday, between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Call 512-463-0605 or go to cemetery.state.tx.us for more information.)
The visitors center is modeled after the long barracks at the Alamo, its narrow windows positioned where gun portals would have been. On one side of the entrance are the administrative offices, and across from them an exhibition gallery. Towering above the visitors center is a 29- by-40-foot Lone Star flag, flapping atop a 150-foot-tall pole, the tallest in Travis County. Bullock demanded that he be able to see the flag from his office at the Capitol. This outraged architects, who believed it violated the scale of their design and might even be a hazard to passing airplanes. Of course, the architects eventually acceded to a principle that should have been apparent from the word go: Bullock was a man who did not understand the word no.
My tour starts at the northern part of the cemetery, which is dominated by a mound called Monument Hill that was made partly from fill that landscapers dug up when they created the pond. Except for some generic monuments to 9/11 victims, Purple Heart recipients, and Gold Star Mothers, this section is mostly vacant. The cemetery is expanding in this direction, and there is still room for three thousand or so graves. Of the handful of plots around Monument Hill, one belongs to an unknown French sailor who was part of the La Salle expedition that landed in Texas in 1685. His body was discovered by excavators for the Texas Historical Commission when they were exploring the wreckage of La Salle’s ship, La Belle, which sank in a storm in Matagorda Bay. A cup found near the skeleton is inscribed with the name C. Barange. Whoever he was, the ancient mariner was buried here only after the French government declined to accept the state’s offer to return the body to his native land.
The most haunting of the various monuments remembers nine soldiers from the tiny Czech community of Praha, in Fayette County, who were killed near the end of World War II. Between February 1944 and February 1945, the town lost nearly 10 percent of its population. The cemetery staff recalled vividly the day in 2002 that the stone was dedicated, how nearly the entire township arrived on two chartered buses. “There were brothers and sisters still alive after sixty years,” said cemetery superintendent Harry Bradley, a catch in his voice as he rested the butt of a well-chewed cigar on the corner of his desk. “Well, hell, watching those farmers with their craggy, wind-beaten faces, huddled together, holding those weathered hands . . .”
Across a footbridge is the Medal of Honor Monument, a thirteen-foot-high obelisk made of mountain red granite from Fredericksburg, honoring 83 Medal of Honor recipients with Texas connections. Just down the hill are the actual graves of four of those men and an open space where heroes still living will someday rest. They are quiet now, these nearly forgotten warriors, but when the winds blow, you can almost hear the crackling laughter of old comrades at ease. James Logan, an infantryman with the 36th Division, practically secured the beachhead at Salerno by himself. Logan was a buddy of a more famous World War II hero, Audie Murphy, and had worked in an oil field near Kilgore prior to his death, in 1999. Nearby are the graves of Robert Galer, who downed eleven Japanese planes in 29 days not long after the Battle of Midway; Jack Lummus, a baseball and football player from Baylor who was killed on Iwo Jima; and George H. O’Brien Jr., a Marine honored for heroism in Korea. Jason Walker, the head of research for the cemetery staff, was dispatched to fetch O’Brien from the airport when the aging soldier came to inspect his grave site, and he remembers that O’Brien immediately barked orders for Walker to park the state van in front of a liquor store so he could run in for a bottle of scotch.
On a rise overlooking the field of Confederate headstones is the cemetery’s most visited—and most controversial—site, the tomb of Albert Sidney Johnston. His statue, designed by Elisabet Ney, reposes in knightly splendor inside a cream-colored Gothic-style structure. Johnston was a general for three countries—the Republic of Texas, the United States, and the Confederacy—and he died at the Battle of Shiloh, trying to rally his exhausted troops for one more charge. There was almost another civil war in 1867 when federal authorities tried to block a move by the Legislature to transport Johnston from his original burial place, in New Orleans, to the state cemetery. If you look closely at Ney’s sculpture, you will see that she chose to drape across Johnston’s legs not the Stars and Bars national flag of the Confederacy but the Southern Cross battle flag. (What you can’t see is the handful of Texas earth that Johnston requested that grave diggers place on his chest.) A heavy piece of Plexiglas protects Johnston’s likeness from grackle poop, and once a year the staff is required to hoist it up and scrub the tomb with Orvis soap and toothbrushes until it is again pearly white.
Just south of Johnston’s memorial, past the tomb honoring Troutman and the heroes of Goliad, is the Plaza, an architectural flourish that Bullock despised. The Plaza is actually a pleasant spot where visitors can sit and contemplate the ghosts of our heritage, sheltered by rows of hedges and giant boulders covered with confederate jasmine, dimly aware of faint strains of tejano music drifting up from Seventh Street. Bullock, however, thought it was the ugliest place he’d ever seen and ordered Bradley to go to the Army-Navy store, buy a box of dynamite, and blow the damn thing up. The Plaza contains no graves or memorials, but the giant stones are inscribed with quotations from our historical fabric—from a Spindle-top wildcatter, Charles Goodnight, Cabeza de Vaca, William B. Travis, and a special report from the U.S. Weather Bureau on September 9, 1900, the day after a hurricane in Galveston killed more than six thousand people.
Bradley doesn’t decide who gets buried here: That’s the job of the three-person Texas State Cemetery Committee, which is appointed by the governor. But he does keep a tight rein over what is written on the stones and monuments, managing it with a nice mixture of humor and historical balance. He has refused messages opposing or advocating controversial issues, but in general people are allowed to compose their own headstones without editorial interference. A lot of folks (politicians in particular) insist on writing their own elaborate epitaphs, not trusting their children to get things right, and some of them even erect their tombstones long before they die. I spot the tombstone of a husband and wife, both still living, who have managed to squeeze nearly every accomplishment (student council president, cheerleader sponsor, member of the Legislature, Kappa Sig fraternity brother) onto their joint headstone. It reads like a high school yearbook.
In a corner near the intersection of Seventh and Navasota, a tombstone shaped like the state of Texas lists among the modest deeds of its owner, Representative “Jumbo” Ben Atwell, of Dallas, the fact that he was the “author of tax bill.” This was Atwell’s ultimate joke, I learned, a rejoinder to the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee who had warned him that nobody ever got credit on his tombstone for passing a tax bill. My personal favorite, though, is the epitaph written by my old friend Bill Kugle, a legislator from Athens who died in 1992. His headstone reads “He never voted for Republicans and had little to do with them.”
Standing on Republic Hill, in the old part of the cemetery, I remember the words of a Louisiana slave that I read on a visit to the Bullock Museum: “It looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.” Now they’re here on Republic Hill, many of them, the best of them: Stephen F. Austin, his tomb topped by a bronze Coppini statue, dominates the spot, commanding the presence of such comrades-in-arms as Augustus Carl Buchel, Josiah Pugh Wilbarger, Thomas “Peg Leg” Ward, and William “Big Foot” Wallace. Look closely at the lives of the old patriots who lay clustered in Austin’s shadow and patterns emerge. They were brave, restless, ruthless, and sometimes foolhardy: If the hazards of war and life on a raw frontier were sometimes a blessed relief from what they had left behind, venturing blindly into the dark unknown threatened a reality more bizarre than anything they’d ever read or imagined.
The lettering on Austin’s monument remembers him as “wise, gentle, courageous and patient.” They might have added lucky. A law student in Louisiana when his father, Moses, applied to the Mexican government for a land grant in Coahuila y Tejas, Austin’s initial reaction was to wonder if the old man had lost his marbles. But when Moses died without completing his project, his son picked up the torch. Austin and his first group of settlers arrived at a spot between the lower Colorado and Brazos rivers, in December 1821. Austin was a diplomat, not a warrior— critics called him an “appeaser”—but there were warriors enough for the job ahead.
My favorite grave site belongs to Buchel. He had fought for armies all over Europe by the time he and his brother arrived at the German settlement of Carlshafen (later Indianola), on Matagorda Bay, in 1845. An adventurer with a reputation for dueling, Buchel had been an officer in the French Foreign Legion, trained cavalry for the Ottoman Empire, been granted the title of pasha, and earned a knighthood for serving Spain’s infant queen, Isabella II. Buchel’s brother became a farmer in DeWitt County, but Augustus Carl returned to military life when the Mexican War broke out, serving on General Zachary Taylor’s staff at the Battle of Buena Vista. Later he commanded the 3rd Texas Infantry at Fort Brown, fighting off invaders along the Rio Grande and preserving the overland cotton trade to Mexico. He died in 1864, leading three hundred Confederate soldiers on a charge at Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. The faded inscription on his white stone marker reads “We know that those who for their country die, through glory live again immortally.”
Towering above these heroes of the Republic like a mutant stalk of gray granite is the monument to Edmund J. Davis, who was considered a traitor by many Texans because he raised a cavalry regiment that fought for the Union. At 31 feet, the monument is the tallest in the cemetery; present rules (except on Republic Hill) restrict monuments to 7 feet. Elected governor in 1869, during Reconstruction, by a margin of eight hundred votes, Davis established a state police force that was loathed by Confederate sympathizers, not just because it was corrupt but because it permitted blacks and Hispanics in the ranks.
A number of contemporary Texas leaders are buried on Republic Hill, including Bullock and Barbara Jordan, whose monuments were so massive that they had to be lifted by a crane over the tree line. The mountain red granite headstone speaks of Bullock’s famous love for the state (“God Bless Texas”) but does not dwell on the accomplishments that made him one of the most powerful men in modern Texas politics. In death as in life, Jordan was a pathfinder, the first (and, to date, only) black woman to be buried at the state cemetery. The power and passion of her speeches gained the national spotlight during the Watergate hearings in 1974, when she lectured the House Judiciary Committee on the fine points of the Constitution. Carved on one side of her headstone is the word “Teacher,” which is how she thought of herself, and on the opposite side the word “Patriot.”
Several recent governors rest on the hill, among them Ann Richards, John Connally, and Allan Shivers. Richards’s permanent marker was installed in March, and her modern white marble headstone, one of the most distinctive in the cemetery, quotes from her 1991 inaugural address: “A glimpse of what can happen in government if we simply open the doors and let the people in.” Attached to the double headstone at the grave site of John and Nellie Connally is a statue of Saint Andrew, which they obtained at Westminster Abbey. When the statue arrived at the cemetery, the staff removed sweat rings from the iced-tea glass Nellie would place there after she had finished working in her garden. Not far away is an open space that turns out to be two plots reserved for George W. and Laura Bush.
Miriam “Ma” Ferguson’s remains lie beside the governor who preceded her, her disgraced husband, James “Pa” Ferguson. I was disappointed to discover that Ma’s headstone made no mention of her most famous quote, apocryphal or not: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”
Several famous Texans who are buried elsewhere are represented by cenotaphs or memorial markers, among them Susanna Wilkerson Dickinson, who survived the Alamo and delivered the news of its fall to Sam Houston. She is buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery. An outline of his famous fedora decorates the cenotaph of legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry, who is buried in Dallas. Pulitzer Prize—winning author James Michener, who moved to Austin to write a book about Texas and stayed on, is remembered here by a cenotaph, but his remains are buried in Austin Memorial Park.
In fact, you can almost count on your fingers the number of writers, artists, and musicians buried here. As author Stephen Harrigan notes in an upcoming book about the Texas State Cemetery, precious few intellectuals are “shoehorned in among the real movers and shakers of Texas history.” There’s Frank Dobie, his lifelong friend Walter Prescott Webb, and Fred Gipson, who wrote Old Yeller. So much for men of letters. Inscribed on Dobie’s tombstone is a message that must sound alien to the ears of many Texans: “I have come to value liberated minds as the supreme good of life on earth.”
The only musician I could locate was an opera singer I’d never heard of, May Peterson Thompson, who in the twenties was known as the “Golden Girl of the Metropolitan Opera.” Thompson’s principal connection to Texas was that she married an Amarillo man who served on the Railroad Commission. That’s about it for the arts. Richards gave her longtime companion, Bud Shrake, a proclamation entitling him to a state plot, but he hasn’t decided if he wants to use it. When Larry L. King appeared near death in February in a hospital in Washington, D.C., Shrake did lobby to get King a spot, only to be told that King wanted no part of the riffraff in Austin, preferring instead to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in a vacant lot in Putnam, next to where his boyhood home once stood. (Subsequently, after a number of prominent Texans, including Laura Bush, pushed to set aside a plot for him, he changed his mind.) Harrigan concludes that maybe it is just as well that the doers outnumber the dreamers in the state cemetery: “Without all the violence, heroism, bigotry, backroom dealing and sometimes surprising reach of those splendidly unliberated minds, the chroniclers of Texas would have nothing to write about.”
Making my way back to the parking lot, down the slope of Republic Hill and across a half-full part of the cemetery called Statesman Meadow, I stop to admire the headstone of the great Willie Wells. It sits directly behind the caretaker’s cottage, built in 1903. As was the case in life, his grave seems segregated from his fellow Texans’. Born in Austin in 1906, Wells was never allowed to play in the major leagues, but he posted a lifetime batting average of .363 in the Negro National League and in Mexico, Canada, and Japan. Willie got the nickname El Diablo from a nasty habit of padding his glove with pieces of brick and rock to discourage aggressive base runners. How good was he? Buck O’Neil, who saw the likes of Honus Wagner, Pop Lloyd, and Ozzie Smith, once said that if he had to pick a shortstop for his team, it would be Wells. He was finally inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1997, eight years after his death. In October 2004, the cemetery committee had his remains disinterred from Evergreen Cemetery, in Austin, and moved here. Surprisingly, he is the only pure athlete on the grounds.
Looking at El Diablo’s grave, I’m not sure if it shows how far we have come or how far we have left to go. Either way, it’s an honor to be in his presence.