On the afternoon of April 16, 1903, people from all over Texas gathered on the lawn of the Capitol to dedicate a monument to the Confederate war dead. The Santa Fe Railroad had offered discount tickets for anyone wanting to make the trip. The Dallas Morning News reported that the dedication “was preceded by one of the largest parades ever seen in Austin.” The monument was a gift to the state from the Camp John B. Hood, United Confederate Veterans.
A reception followed in the Senate, and then the final exercises were held in the House chamber, featuring a speech by former Confederate postmaster John H. Reagan, the recently retired chairman of the Texas Railroad Commission. “He declared that the Confederates were neither traitors nor rebels, but had been forced to vindicate themselves when the majority in the national Government trampled over their constitutional rights,” the News reported.
Reagan spoke several days later in Fort Worth and said there had been a “systematic falsification of the great facts of history,” the Star-Telegram reported. “Slavery he said was the occasion but it was not strictly true to say that it was the cause of the war. Sectional jealousy, greed of gain and the lust of political power in his opinion led to the great struggle.”
So was this statue on the Capitol grounds meant to honor Texans who fought in the Civil War or was it an homage to the Confederacy?
First, look at who headed the committee to create the monument: former Governor Frank R. Lubbock, who had been Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ aide de camp at the time federal forces arrested them, along with Reagan, as they fled from the collapse of the Confederate capital in Richmond. A statue of Davis would top the monument. As described by the San Antonio Express-News at the time, “The statue of President Davis presents the eminent statesman in the attitude of delivering an address, with the full strength of is character delineated in the features … The left hand holds a document, supposedly the Confederate constitution…”
The key words on the monument are, “Died for State Rights Guaranteed Under the Constitution The People of the South animated by the spirit of 1776 to preserve their rights withdrew from the Federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion. The South, against overwhelming numbers and resources, Fought until exhausted.” It goes on to list the total enlistments of the Confederate and federal armies and losses from all causes: Confederate 437,000, Federal 485,216.
When I first came to work at the Capitol in 1982, this monument shocked me as a blatant paean to the Confederacy, in the guise of a statue honoring the Texans who fought in the war. The Texas brigade memorial east of the Capitol, dedicated in 1910 by men who fought in the war, properly contains an image of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia because they fought under it. The statue to Terry’s Texas Rangers, what can I say? I worked at the Capitol for years before I realized it was meant to honor a Civil War cavalry unit instead of the western lawmen. But that giant monument at the foot of the Great Walk was about perpetuating the mythology of the Lost Cause.
In the wake of the racist church shootings in South Carolina and that state’s debate over removing the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds, a group of mostly African-American legislators have asked Governor Greg Abbott for a study of whether the Confederate statues and markers on the Capitol grounds are “historically accurate, whether they are appropriately located on the Capitol grounds, and whether any changes are needed.”
A change is needed, but not the wholesale tearing down of these monuments. What is needed at each is a new historical marker putting the monuments into context. May I suggest something such as:
This monument was erected in 1903 as part of an effort to perpetuate the myth that Texas secession was about state’s rights and not slavery. But the Texas Ordinance of Secession read, in part, “That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free …” Texas and other Southern states seceded in name of the state’s right to allow the ownership and bondage of men, women and children; slaves denied their individual liberties. Because of the Union victory, the number of slaves freed were: Texas, 250,000 Nationally, 3.9 million.”
Rather than erasing history by destroying these monuments and sweeping our dirty past under the rug, they can be turned into true learning experiences.
(Photo: Unveiling of Confederate Monument at the Capitol/University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting the Austin History Center.)