While Confederate monuments fell around the country — including several on the University of Texas campus in 2015 and 2017 — a new one appeared in Austin without fanfare in April 2016.
The George W. Littlefield Camp No. 59 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans quietly raised a 10-foot-high granite plinth and obelisk in Oakwood Cemetery, which is public and operated by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, near the corner of Comal Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“We wanted to honor the over 400 men who served the Confederacy during the War between the States and who are buried at Oakwood,” said Marshall Davis of Austin, commander of the Littlefield Camp, about the unheralded monument. “In doing so, we were not trying to be controversial, only to honor our Confederate ancestors who fought bravely and nobly.”
The project moved smoothly through the city of Austin’s approval process. According to public records, on June 11, 2012, the Sons, led then by Carl Crowther, presented the idea to the Certificate of Appropriateness Review Committee of the Austin Historic Landmark Commission. It was endorsed without controversy.
“It gave us pause,” admitted Kim McKnight, project coordinator and cultural resource specialist at Austin Parks and Recreation. “It was difficult. We referred it to legal, and they said we had no prohibitions in place against such a monument and there was a First Amendment component. It was also a different time.”
Requests for cemetery monuments are not customarily reviewed by the Austin City Council.
Before proposing the statue, Davis’ Camp, a heritage group formed in 1898, carefully documented the Confederate veterans buried at Oakwood. Their research is stored in four boxes at the Austin History Center. The files include newspaper clippings, muster rolls and other resources dated from the 1870s through the 1930s.
The obelisk portion of the monument shows the Confederate Seal and is inscribed with the words “Lest We Forget,” taken from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem “Recessional.”
An inscription on the monument’s thick plinth, faced in light gray granite from the Stone Mountain, Ga. area, site of the country’s largest Confederate monument, reads: “Dedicated to those men who served in the Armed Forces of the Confederate States of America who are buried within these hallowed grounds.”
In addition to the 400-plus Confederates buried at Oakwood, seven Union soldiers are interred there, near a chain-link fence, their weathered gravestones marked with the phrase “U.S. Soldier” and “unknown.” They might have served under General George Armstrong Custer during Reconstruction. Some researchers have suggested they died during a cholera outbreak.
The Parks Department created an awards-winning master plan for Oakwood and Austin’s four other historic cemeteries to revive the often neglected grave sites. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, however, owns the 25-foot-by-30-foot plot where the crisply lettered monument now rises.
City Council Member Ora Houston, in whose district the cemetery lies, learned about the monument very recently, when the city put together a list of Confederate sites in town.
“This is the best place for a monument,” Houston said, moments after the emotional dedication of the renovated Oakwood Cemetery Chapel, located not far away in what had been the graveyard’s “Colored Grounds.”
During construction, 38 bodies were found under the church, and they have not been identified. They will be reburied with respect.
“It’s a place for making sense of our history, even the negative part, a part that is dead,” Houston said. “We can’t say it didn’t exist.”
Is a cemetery that includes the unmarked graves of slaves — and also serves as a city park — the right place for a new Confederate monument?
“Depends,” said Ted Eubanks, a certified interpretive planner and heritage interpreter who has been working on histories of downtown Austin sites. “If the city park is on the site of a battleground, sure. But even at a battleground, history should be told holistically, not selectively. Oakwood isn’t a battleground. We were on the outskirts of the action during the Civil War. The Confederates who are buried in Oakwood, for the most part, died after their return to Austin after the war.”
The Littlefield Camp, which claims about 60 members on its website, is involved in re-enactments, parades and living-history demonstrations. Last year, Austin Mayor Steve Adler boycotted the annual Veterans Day Parade because groups who signed up for it planned to carry Confederate flags. Since then, the Austin Veterans Day Parade Committee has decided that the event would honor only veterans of the U.S. armed forces.
Davis rejects any connection to white-nationalist groups like those that demonstrated violently last year in Charlottesville, Va.
“We are solely and only a veterans heritage group,” Davis said. “Period. And have been since the late 1800s. Unfortunately, a lot of other groups with different agendas hide behind our sacred symbols to advance an agenda that is not ours.”
While Davis hews to a historical point of view, an online appeal for donations for the monument contains some contentious phrases, given the origins of the Civil War in the rebel bombardment of a federal fort. For instance, the claim that the soldiers “took up arms against an invading foe.”
The monument itself contains none of the kinds of ahistorical phrases inscribed on the “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque at the state Capitol. Still, some experts wonder how such a memorial slipped onto the grounds of an historic cemetery at such a late date.
Ben Wright, a Ph.D. history student at UT who has researched war memorials extensively, pointed out: “The city let it go up in the years between Charleston and Charlottesville — in an historically black neighborhood.”