Texas lawmakers in 1895 approved a monument “to the Confederate dead” to be placed on the grounds of the Capitol. Eight years later, more than 5,000 people gathered to see the Confederate Soldiers Monument unveiled — a particularly large crowd considering Austin’s population at the turn of the last century was just 22,000.
At the unveiling, John H. Reagan, the former Confederate postmaster general, told the crowd outside the Capitol that the North was to blame for the Civil War. “The people of the New England states, even as far back as 1803, when the Louisiana Purchase was consummated, opposed it, as they declared it would increase the power of the agriculture states and diminish the power of the manufacturing states,” he said, according to an account of the ceremony in the Austin Statesman.
Reagan said slavery had “existed in every civilized country in the world, including the Eastern states.”
Between 1903 and 1910, three Confederate monuments would be installed on the Capitol grounds. During each unveiling, Confederate war heroes and high-profile politicians of the day used the opportunity to depict the North as the aggressor and downplay slavery as a cause of the Civil War – accounts that historians today say are inaccurate.
In subsequent decades, lawmakers approved more Confederate memorials. All told, at least 20 symbols of the Confederacy — monuments, historical markers, portraits, art, seals, cannons and a plaque — adorn the Capitol and its grounds.
More than 120 years after lawmakers gave the first OK to a Confederate monument, some state officials are calling for a review of the memorials, with at least one lawmaker saying they should all be removed.
The monuments are being defended by Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republican leaders as representing a chapter of American history that shouldn’t be forgotten. But, based on a review of the legislative record authorizing the memorials and contemporary accounts of their dedications, the monuments were erected as part of an effort to recast the war as a battle over “state rights.” Slavery and African-Americans are not mentioned on the memorials.
As Confederate veterans were aging and former secessionists were regaining political power in the South, the monuments emerged as part of an effort to assert a white supremacist narrative of the Civil War, historians say.
During the unveiling of the Terry’s Texas Rangers Monument in 1907, John H. Robertson, then a state representative from Travis County and its former district attorney, offered his view of the Civil War.
“Like all great conflicts, it was the result of an assertion of power on one side, and the defense of what was believed to be the right on the other side,” he said, according to the Austin Statesman. “The controversy between the North and the South regarding the reserved rights of the states under the Constitution, arose early in the history of the republic.”
Shortly before the unveiling of the Hood’s Texas Brigade Monument in 1910, William R. Hamby, president of the Hood’s Texas Brigade Association, said the Civil War was not a “lost cause” for the South. Hamby fought for the Confederacy and later became managing editor of Austin Daily Statesman, and then a state lawmaker.
“Those who still call us traitors and rebels think treason is the child of the South and that it was conceived in the sin of slavery and was born in the iniquity of secession,” Hamby said, as quoted in the Austin Statesman. “They overlook the fact that treason, slavery and secession are all children of New England. The first of all the colonies to legalize traffic in human slavery and to pass laws for the regulation and control of trade in African slaves was Massachusetts.”
Then-Gov. Thomas Mitchell Campbell said during the unveiling of the Hood’s Brigade monument that the war was “great because of the great principles for which they fought and died.”
“The men of the South did not surrender because they were whipped, for they never were,” Campbell claimed, “but they surrendered because they were tired of victory.”
‘Heyday of white supremacy’
Across the South, people also erected monuments to the Confederacy because it was “vindication of some of their most basic beliefs,” said Sanford Levinson, a University of Texas law professor and author of “Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies.”
“It’s the heyday of white supremacy,” Levinson said of the decades following Reconstruction, when federal troops, who had enforced the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the enfranchisement of African-Americans, left. “And white supremacy was just what the Civil War was all about. … To ignore that is to deeply ignore the history of that time.”
The South suffered “catastrophic loss” in the Civil War, said Walter L. Buenger, a UT history professor and former president of the Texas State Historical Association. He compared it to France after World War I.
After the conflict, focusing on honor and states’ rights “became more central to explaining the war and coping with trauma and losing,” he said. Buenger also said slavery and “preservation of white supremacy” prompted the war.
“It’s impossible to imagine a dispute that would have divided the nation other than slavery,” he said.
By the 1890s, there was an effort to justify slavery, and later states began re-instituting racist policies “to put African-Americans back in their place” such as poll taxes, which made it difficult for black, Hispanic and poor white people to vote, Buenger said. Racism wasn’t confined to the South, but it was more violent in the region, Buenger said.
The Ku Klux Klan gained power across the South in the late 19th century, and lynchings reached a crescendo in the 1890s, according to a 2015 report by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative.
Between 1877 and 1940, 335 African-Americans were lynched in Texas, sixth among all states, according to the report.
When 11 Southern states, including Texas, seceded from the Union, leaders cited preserving slavery as a primary reason. Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens said the ideological “cornerstone” of the new nation was that “the negro is not equal to the white man” and “slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition.”
Texas made the same point in its declaration of causes for secession: “(Texas) was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”
Just a few decades later, white Southerners had excised African-Americans from a new narrative of the war, instead emphasizing Southern honor and heritage and Northern aggression. Some defending the monuments continue to strike those notes today.
Marshall Davis, spokesman for the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the Civil War was not fought over the South’s continued interest in enslaving African-Americans.
“Seems to me if slavery was the issue, there would have been a constitutional amendment in 1861,” he told the Statesman. “You cannot morally judge history by today’s standards.”
The Confederacy did not create slavery, Davis added.
“It was ‘you’re not telling me what to do,’” Davis said. “It is a very complicated issue. Slavery was a factor.”
Soldiers on both sides fought for their country, he said.
“You’re not going to see somewhere (on a monument) ‘my brother died to protect slavery,’” Davis said.
Davis disagrees with how critics interpret Confederate monuments.
“I see them as veterans monuments,” he said.
There are single monuments on the Capitol grounds honoring veterans of the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korea War and the Vietnam War, but none are as large or as prominent as the three Confederate monuments erected in the first decade of the 20th century.
The latest push to remove Confederate monuments follows deadly clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., in August amid plans in that city to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Two years ago, officials across the South faced similar pressure to remove Confederate symbols after white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black people and injured one person at a South Carolina church.
In Texas, a large monument of Lee was removed last month in Dallas, and the park where the statue stood was stripped of his name. Also last month, San Antonio workers removed a Confederate monument in Travis Park downtown. In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner called for an inventory of all monuments with ties to the Confederacy.
On orders of UT President Gregory L. Fenves, crews removed three statues of Confederate figures and a statue of the son of a Confederate officer from the campus’ South Mall in August. Fenves had a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis removed in 2015.
There are no remaining Confederate public monuments in Austin outside the Capitol grounds, but the City Council is considering renaming Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue.
There were at least 1,500 Confederate symbols displayed publicly in the United States in 2015, when the Southern Poverty Law Center took a tally. The organization counted 66 monuments in Texas.
The largest collection of Confederate symbols in the state is in and around the Capitol.
State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, supports removing them all, but he is focused first on a plaque that he says misstates the origins of the war.
Erected in 1959 by the Texas Division of the Children of the Confederacy, the plaque honors “the heroic deeds” of the Confederate Army and states: “We, therefore, pledge ourselves to preserve pure ideals, to honor our veterans, to study and teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is that the war between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery) and to always act in a manner that will reflect honor upon our noble and patriotic ancestors.”
Johnson has asked the State Preservation Board to remove it.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who is chairman of the board, plans to meet with Johnson.
“The plaque at issue is simply indefensible on historical grounds, and I believe Gov. Abbott knows that,” Johnson said in an August statement.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, co-vice chairman of the board, told fellow officers last month that “Texans are not well-served by incorrect information about our history” and agreed the plaque should be taken down.
Abbott said in August that as governor his goal “is to eliminate the racist and hate-filled environment we are seeing in our country today.”
“But we must remember that our history isn’t perfect,” he said. “If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. Instead of trying to bury our past, we must learn from it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Tearing down monuments won’t erase our nation’s past, and it doesn’t advance our nation’s future.”
Other members of the all-Republican State Preservation Board, which is charged with preserving and maintaining the Capitol, haven’t spoken publicly about where they stand on the issue. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, declined to speak on the matter. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Confederate Soldiers Monument
The Legislature gave the John B. Hood Camp of Confederate Veterans permission in 1895 to erect a monument “to the Confederate dead on the Capitol grounds in the city of Austin.” The organization unveiled the Confederate Soldiers Monument in 1903 to great fanfare. The monument features five bronze figures depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the middle of the structure surrounded by four more figures representing the infantry, cavalry, artillery and Navy, according to the State Preservation Board.
Former Confederate Postmaster General John H. Reagan “declared that slavery was done away with in the Eastern states on account of the fact that white labor was so cheap, and when it was eliminated there, they wanted it abolished in the South, as they contended that one half of the republic could not be free and the other half slavery,” according to the Austin Statesman. “He then went on to say that they had the majority regardless of rights, they pursued their policy of forcing the South to do away with slavery whether it favored it or not. He denied that the people of the South were rebels or traitors. They were patriots, fighting to defend their property against a lawless body.”
Reagan was a U.S. congressman before the South seceded. He later became postmaster general of the Confederacy and acting treasury secretary before he, Davis and former Gov. Francis R. Lubbock were captured in 1865.
Lubbock, who joined the Confederate Army after completing one term as governor, alluded to his age at the ceremony, when “he had prayed the Almighty to spare him to see this day – the unveiling of the statue of his revered chieftain.”
“We fought for what we ‘considered’ was right,” and fought for what we “know was right,” he said, according to the Statesman.
Then-Gov. Samuel Willis Tucker Lanham, a Confederate veteran, pointed at the statue of Davis and said, “I salute thee!” drawing applause from the crowd.
“The governor concluded by declaring that, if he ever heard any one abusing President Davis or the noble cause he championed, he would at first remonstrate with him, and if that did not suffice, he would feel sorely tempted to strike the offender with a shillalah,” according to the Statesman. “This caused another outburst of applause.”
Terry’s Texas Rangers Monument
The Legislature in 1897 granted to the Eighth Texas Cavalry Association permission to erect a monument on the Capitol grounds. The bronze statue, unveiled in 1907, depicts a member of the Eighth Texas Cavalry, aka Terry’s Texas Rangers, “astride a spirited horse,” according to the State Preservation Board.
Ahead of the unveiling, an Austin Statesman unnamed contributor who identified himself as “one of J.E.B. Stuart’s men” praised the monument in a “People’s Forum” column.
“Not conquered, but annihilated, they surrendered not a principle, but a broken sword,” the reader said about the cavalry. “This gallant remnant returned to their Texas homes to fight over again in the dark days of Reconstruction the battle for white supremacy. How well they made that fight you have but to look around you. These men literally hammered their swords into plow shares and the work of peace was as grand as that of war.”
The Statesman disclaimed before such columns that “the fact that it is published should not be construed as reflecting any personal views of the management, as this column is the people’s column and is intended to reflect their personal views at all times.”
About 5,000 people reportedly attended the unveiling ceremony. Capt. Rufus Young King, who fought in the cavalry, presented the monument to then-Gov. Thomas Mitchell Campbell, but he did so after telling the crowd that he was tired of hearing that Southerners fought for what they “thought was right.”
“I, for one, hold that we were right,” he said before introducing Campbell. “We chose the fortunes of war rather than dishonor. We battled for principle. We chose the only course worthy of Americans. Better defeat than humiliation. Better the long story of Reconstruction, with all its wrongs, than surrender the teachings we received from our fathers, for those are the basis of liberty and the hope of posterity. Indeed, all that brave men hold dear. We have no fears that the future historian will write us down in shame or dishonor. Our record is bright and our conscience is clear. We believe that as the years go by our children will be as proud of being our descendants as the Jew is of coming from Abraham.”
Then-state Rep. John H. Robertson implied he wasn’t too interested in drudging up the past but did so anyway.
“It would not be profitable today to enter upon an extended discussion of the causes, direct and remote, that brought about the conflict, or to show the constitutional right of the southern states to withdraw from the Union, or to justify the terrible war they prosecuted in defending their right of secession asserted by them.”
Hood’s Texas Brigade Monument
The Legislature in 1909 authorized space for a monument to John B. Hood’s Texas Brigade. The monument was unveiled the next year before about 10,000 people.
“Unveiled in the sight of 10,000 people the bronze statue of the private soldier of Hood’s Brigade stood exposed in all its nobility yesterday morning in the sun on the Capitol grounds. Amid the beautiful and inspiring strains of ‘Maryland, My Maryland,’ and the cheers from thousands of patriotic throats, the flag of Texas which draped the figure on the granite shaft, was lowered and exposed the sculptured hero to the view of the crowd beneath,” the Austin Statesman declared in its Oct. 28, 1910, paper.
“MONUMENT IS UNVEILED,” “SPEECHES ELOQUENT,” read headlines the following day.
William R. Hamby, president of the Hood’s Texas Brigade Association and veteran of the war, said before the unveiling that the South “has no apologies to offer for the history her sons made during the war between the states.” He also downplayed the role slavery played in the war. Then-President Abraham Lincoln amplified slavery’s role by signing the Emancipation Proclamation just to win the war, Hamby charged.
“That proclamation was not issued because of love for the negro or in vindication of human rights as declared by the advocates of the ‘higher law,’ but was strictly a military necessity,” Hamby said. “It encouraged and fostered a spirit of unrest and insubordination among the negroes inside of the Confederate lines, which in turn aroused the greatest apprehensions among the soldiers for the safety of their loved ones at home, and as opportunity offered the negroes flocked in droves to the federal camps in expectation that the federal government would confiscate the property of all the southern people and give every negro ‘forty acres and a mule.’”
Then-Gov. Thomas Mitchell Campbell said during the unveiling ceremony that the war was “great because of the great principles for which they fought and died,” adding it wasn’t a “lost cause.”
“The men of the South did not surrender because they were whipped, for they never were,” Campbell claimed, “but they surrendered because they were tired of victory.”