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.
The monument for the Father of Texas, whose remains were moved here in 1913.
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

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

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