From the window of my office at the University of Texas at Austin, I can see the statue of Albert Sidney Johnston, a professional soldier who served in three armies: the Republic of Texas, the U.S., and the Confederate. Johnston’s is one of seven memorials that I have been walking past for more than forty years without ever reading the inscriptions. A couple of months ago, however, I decided to examine the monuments and the words etched upon them, though some are so faded that after a few more years of wear, erosion, and global warming, they won’t be legible at all. If the statues are still there.
For this year, as during recent ones, there are calls for the university to rid itself of these embarrassing nods to the Old South. This spring the controversy even spilled over to that citadel of reason, the Texas House of Representatives. CNN devoted some airtime to it, and for a few moments it became a national story. But it is here, on the campus of UT, where the issue will be resolved—or not.
The lightning rod of the statues, the rock star of opprobrium, is Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Before assuming that office, Davis was a colonel in the U.S. Army and the Secretary of War of the United States. One of the most colorful things Davis did, which is not mentioned on the statue, was to introduce camels into West Texas, on the theory that one desert is as good as another in the utilization of eco-correct animals. (The experiment failed; Texans in those days would not walk a mile for a camel.)
Another controversial statue is that of Robert E. Lee, who, following the Civil War, became the president of George Washington College. Before the war, Lee, along with Davis and Johnston, fought in the Mexican War, and he also served as the superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. But Lee was the soul of the Confederacy, even though he freed his own slaves five years after inheriting them and even though he expressed opposition to slavery, in a letter to his wife, five years before the Civil War. No matter: According to the critics, Lee, Davis, Johnston, and John H. Reagan must go.
John H. who? I certainly didn’t know until I read his inscription. Reagan was the postmaster general of the Confederate States, and after the war he publicly called for Texans to renounce both slavery and secession. He was also the first chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas. If that doesn’t set your blood to boiling, I don’t know what does.
A fifth statue, which was installed in 1955, about two decades later than the others, is of George Washington. Like all the rest, Washington was a Southerner and a slave owner, but he gets a pass because he left a will that freed his slaves upon the death of himself and his wife. The only controversial thing about the Washington statue is that at a certain angle, the handle of his sword, held in a firm grip, is thought by some wags to resemble a physical attribute befitting the father of his country.
Two other statues on UT’s grassy knoll haven’t drawn any fire, so far as I know. Governor James Stephen Hogg—father of Ima, a noted UT benefactor, and the first native governor of Texas—was born too late to be tarred by the Civil War, and by all accounts he was one of the better, more progressive governors in Texas history, the list of which is not long. Woodrow Wilson was Mr. Everything in his day, including the president of Princeton University, the governor of New Jersey, and a two-term president of the United States. Among the criticism sometimes directed at Wilson is the fact that he allowed a viewing of The Birth of a Nation in the White House. (This kind of cherry-picking of the historical record makes everybody vulnerable; Abe Lincoln, the greatest secular saint in America, liked to tell racist jokes.) One of the accomplishments on Wilson’s stone CV, by the way, is “Founder of the League of Nations.” Talk about lost causes.
Exempting Washington, Hogg, and Wilson, that leaves the offending four, who are all there because of the Confederate loyalties of one man: George Washington Littlefield, an early regent of the university. His name survives today in the Littlefield Fountain at the southernmost part of the mall, at the opposite end from the Tower; in the Littlefield Home, a Victorian mansion of red brick and stone that sits on campus on Twenty-fourth Street; and in the Littlefield Building, in downtown Austin, one of the most celebrated historic structures in the city.
Littlefield grew up on a plantation and later owned slaves himself. During the Civil War he served under Albert Sidney Johnston and nearly died at the Battle of Mossy Creek (Johnston was killed at Shiloh, in 1862). During Reconstruction, Littlefield enjoyed great success in the new cattle industry in West Texas and made a ton of money in banking. As a regent, he wielded power and influence. His chief rival was another George Washington, George Washington Brackenridge. A Unionist whose brothers owned slaves, Brackenridge did not fight in the Civil War but instead spent those years making a fortune in the cotton trade in South Texas and, later, in banking. During his 27-year tenure as a regent of the university, he wanted UT to abandon its Southern connections.
The two men of opposing views and temperaments were at loggerheads over Littlefield’s support for developing a history curriculum that would emphasize the study of the South. Littlefield won, and he put his money where his loyalties were. At the urging of Eugene Barker, the chairman of the history department, Littlefield provided the cash to build up a collection that became the Littlefield Fund for Southern History. This is still the foundation of UT’s considerable holdings on the subject, to which major troves of African