When Heroes and Despots are the Same Person
The conflict about Confederate statues reflects the contradictions within historical figures themselves.
On August 11, 250 white supremacists, shouting “Jews will not replace us,” marched towards a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Thirty counter-protestors, holding up a sign reading “UVA Students against White Supremacy,” locked arms around the statue. But the history of the bronze Jefferson itself contained a conflict between slavery and tolerance: Did the white supremacists know the sculptor of the 1910 piece was a gay Jew? And did the counter-protestors know the sculptor also was a former Confederate soldier whose family’s tailor shop in Richmond prior to the Civil War had sewn women’s clothing so young, multi-racial women could be sold at a nearby slave auction as “fancy girls”?
To some, statues of Confederate heroes glorify slavery and racism. To others, the statues commemorate brave soldiers who shouldn’t be forgotten because of the immoral values of their era. But America’s history, and particularly the Civil War, is one of contradictions, often within a single person. We explore people with ties to Confederate monuments, including a Confederate captain who paid abolitionists to raise his multiracial children, a suffragette who fought to deny black men the right to vote, and a slave who fought for Texas and survived the Alamo.
Sul Ross, A&M advocate and Confederate brigadier general
After the white supremacist rally against removing Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly, Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick denounced the violence but said the existing Confederate statues on the Texas Capitol grounds should remain. While the University of Texas quietly removed the statues of Confederates Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, and John H. Reagan from the Austin campus under the cover of darkness, Texas A&M President Michael Young and Chancellor John Sharp defended keeping the statue of Sul Ross on campus. “Without Sul Ross, neither Texas A&M University nor Prairie View A&M University would likely exist today,” Young said in statement. “He saved our school and Prairie View through his consistent advocacy in the face of those who persistently wanted to close us down.”
History is never that simple, though. Lawrence Sullivan Ross was a brigadier general heading Texas cavalry in Mississippi. Ross’s troopers encountered the federal First Mississippi Cavalry, which consisted of recently freed slaves with little military training, and Ross ordered a charge. “The negroes after the first fire broke in wild disorder, each seeming intent on nothing but making his escape. Being mounted on mules, however, but a few of them got away. The road all the way to Yazoo City was literally strewed with their bodies,” Ross wrote in his official report. Two days after the fight, a Union colonel determined that five of his soldiers were dismounted in the engagement and then “brutally murdered” by the Texans.
Is Sul Ross the hero who saved Texas’s black universities, or the Confederate traitor whose men murdered black soldiers on the field of battle?
Moses Ezekiel, Confederate sculptor
The most important Confederate monument in the United States surely is the memorial at Arlington National Cemetery at what once was Robert E. and Mary Custis Lee’s plantation home. Approval for the monument was granted by Secretary of War William Howard Taft under President Theodore Roosevelt. The sculptor chosen for the task was Moses Ezekiel, the same man who produced the Thomas Jefferson statue at the University of Virginia. As a young man in Richmond, Ezekiel had known the Lee family, and as a cadet at Virginia Military Institute, Ezekiel fought for the Confederacy at the Battle of New Market. Ezekiel was a proud Confederate, but spent most of his adult life living in Rome because the city was more tolerant than America of his homosexual lifestyle. “He was adamantly opposed to slavery, and yet his bread and butter after the Civil War was commemorating Civil War Confederate heroes. He had countless commissions,” Ezekiel biographer Peter Adam Nash told me. “Most people knew him as a dignified Southern bachelor.” On dedicating the Arlington monument, Ezekiel described his intent was to create a work about the future with the past not forgotten. Figures marching around the base “represent the sacrifices, the devotion, the heroism of all the classes of the South in upholding and fighting for what they passionately believed to be right.” Descendants of Ezekiel’s siblings have called for the monument’s removal.
Cornelia Branch Stone, suffragette and advocate of the Lost Cause
Fundraising for the monument in Arlington was headed by Galveston’s Cornelia Branch Stone, president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy–Texas. Stone believed in women’s suffrage and helped push through the state poll tax, believing that the Legislature was more likely to give women the vote if lawmakers did not have to fear black men voting. Stone also developed the Confederate Catechism for Children to indoctrinate school children in the Lost Cause mythology: that the South tried to leave the Union peacefully, and fought for state’s rights and self-determination, not for slavery. “To emphasize the perception that the Old South was a more advanced civilization than the northern industrialized wage slavery system, Stone and others worked to memorialize the South’s great leaders,” Stone biographer Elizabeth Hayes Turner wrote to me in an email. “Hence the Daughters pushed hard to influence the politics of memory with giant statues and out sized rhetoric extolling the glories of southerners’ defense of the region.”
Milton Holland, Medal of Honor winner and son of a Confederate captain
Milton Murray Holland, the first Medal of Honor winner born in Texas, was born to a slave and a Confederate official. Holland’s mother was a multiracial house slave on a plantation near Carthage, and his father, Bird, was a white politician who served as an aide to five Texas governors. As Texas secretary of state, Bird Holland’s signature made Texas secession official. But almost a decade earlier, Bird Holland had purchased Milton, his mother, and three siblings, freed them in Ohio, and paid abolitionists to rear and educate his children. Bird died as a Confederate captain in 1864 during a charge against federal lines in Louisiana.
Because Milton Holland had northern European facial features and light skin, he was offered the opportunity to pass as a white officer in the Union Army. Instead, he chose to serve as a black sergeant, the highest rank an African-American could hold in the U.S. Army in 1863. When President Lincoln rode a horse among the black troops at Petersburg, the soldiers reached out just to touch his horse as he passed. Holland called the president, “our Moses.” Several months later, Holland earned his Medal of Honor as a member of the Fifth U.S. Colored Troops during a successful assault of an earthworks held by members of Hood’s Texas Brigade outside of Richmond.
A short distance from the Ezekiel monument at Arlington rests Holland’s remains, buried in the segregated section for “colored” soldiers of the Civil War. At the Texas Capitol, there is a small photograph of Milton in the basement, but outside the building, there is a 38-foot-tall monument to the Texas Brigade. Bird Holland’s remains were returned from Louisiana in 1865 and reinterred in an Austin city cemetery under a monument raised by his friends. The Latin inscription translates as ‘Tis sweet to die for your country.
Joe, a slave who fought for Texas and survived the Alamo
With Texas in open rebellion, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna arrived on February 16, 1836, at the town of Villa de Guerrero on the Rio Grande with his army to suppress the insurrection. While awaiting his troops to amass for the final march to San Antonio to take the garrison at the Alamo, Santa Anna wrote the Mexican minister of war about his goals for the coming war. One was to address how the Texans had gotten around the Mexican laws prohibiting slavery by declaring their slaves as indentured servants. “There is a considerable number of slaves in Texas also, who have been introduced by their masters under cover of certain questionable contracts, but who according to our laws should be free. Shall we permit those wretches to moan in chains any longer in a country whose kind laws protect the liberty of man without distinction of cast or color?”
Twenty-two days later, the Constitutional Convention for the Republic of Texas meeting at Washington on the Brazos adopted a provision to convert all bonded servants into slaves for life and declaring that “No free person of African descent” was to be allowed to live in Texas without the specific permission of the Republic’s Congress. A quarter of a century later, one of the men who signed that Constitution, Edwin Waller, was the second man to autograph the Texas Ordinance of Secession from the United States—a document that declared the perpetuation of slavery as the primary cause of disunion and exposes the Lost Cause as a lie.
Today, there is on the state Capitol grounds a monument commemorating those who fell in the name of liberty at the Alamo. The men of the Texas Revolution against Mexico did not like having to do business in Spanish or follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, and central government tariffs were punishing to the economy. But there also was a nagging concern that someday the Mexican central government would enforce its laws against slavery. The monument commemorating the Heroes of the Alamo was built in 1891. Keeping to the myth that all the defenders bravely gave their lives fighting for freedom, on the monument is inscribed: “Thermopylae had her messenger of defeat, but the Alamo had none.”
But the Alamo did have one messenger of defeat—William B. Travis’s slave Joe, the only male defender known to have survived. Less than a month after the battle, Joe appeared before Sam Houston and members of the Republic of Texas government. Joe described the fall of the Alamo and his own role as a Texas soldier in the fight. During the Mexican attack, Joe ran to the wall with Travis. A moment after Travis fired his rifle at the oncoming soldiers, Joe unloaded a shotgun on them as well. “Come on boys, the Mexicans are upon us, and we’ll give them hell,” Travis shouted. Then a bullet hit Travis in the forehead, killing him. Joe retreated to the barracks building and fired several more times before deciding the cause was lost, quit fighting and awaited his fate. When a Mexican officer called out in English, “Are there any Negroes in here?” Joe responded by saying, “Yes, here’s one.”
Joe was at the Alamo against his will, but by firing shots at the Mexican soldiers, he became a combatant for Texas. Afterward, Joe was returned to plantation work as a slave of Travis’s estate. A year later, on the first anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, Joe ran away from a plantation near Columbia. Travis’s executor placed a newspaper advertisement seeking Joe’s return. “This negro was in the Alamo with his master when it was taken; and was the only man from the colonies who was not put to death.” The reward offered was $40 for Joe and the small bay horse he rode away on, but Joe escaped to freedom. In 1877, the Civil War had come and gone and Joe was living as a free man somewhere near Austin. A local newspaper, noting the presence in the city of Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson, suggested having both attend a San Jacinto Day festivity. “We do not see why the veterans should not be feted by the city government or by the citizens of the capital.”
One hundred forty years later, I agree. It is far overdue to celebrate the last defender of the Alamo. Joe is mentioned on the Texas African-American History Memorial on the Capitol grounds, but he is missing from the Alamo monument. And perhaps it would be fitting to replace the controversial Confederate plaque with one honoring him: Joe, the slave who fought for liberty even though he had none.