Why Texas leaders erected Confederate monuments at the Capitol


Monuments emerged as former secessionists regained power across the South and pushed new narrative of the war.

Critics say the monuments represent racism and should be removed. Defenders see a teachable moment.

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.”

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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.

PHOTOS: Confederate monuments at Texas Capitol

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.

‘Veterans’ monuments’

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 laterwhite 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.”

RELATED: After Charlottesville, Austin’s Confederate monuments get a second look

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.

Removing symbols

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.

RELATED: Efforts underway in large Texas cities to remove Confederate monuments

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.

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