THE OFFICE WALL – Here is a veteran’s medal reading “Forrest Cavalry Corps.” Belonged to an ancestor. Other old photos, plus books and family stories reflect our past, but maybe the South won’t rise again. Schools are changing their names from Rebels to Mavericks, no one plays “Dixie” anymore, and the Emancipation Proclamation seems to be more than a passing fad. The latest example is the uproar over a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowing the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) to buy Texas license plates sporting their logo and name. The logo contains the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, better known as the Confederate battle flag or the Stars and Bars. The SCV would pay the State of Texas $8,000 to issue the plates, then recoup costs with each one sold.
SCV members say they are only trying to honor their forefathers, and the judges said it was a matter of freedom of speech. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson argues that the group’s license plate “is a simple fund-raising effort by a historical association with a long history of civic involvement.” Phaedra Dugan, identified in an op/ed piece as a former Congressional staffer, argues, “That flag is not only a symbol of slavery, but it is anti-American at its very core.” Patterson is a member of the SCV. It’s not clear if Dugan has a dog in this fight or is on missionary work.
This latest kerfuffle (a Confederate soldier’s term meaning “beans again?”) begs the question: Are we still arguing over the Civil War or, as my grandmother called it, the War of Northern Aggression? Maybe it’s because no one can spell Appomattox. In any event, there are so many newcomers to Texas, we need to take another look at the Late Unpleasantness. First, unlike most of Dixie, Texas was a sideshow in the war. Only Galveston and the Battle of Sabine Pass saw action. But Texas did send 90,000 of its young men to fight in gray. In addition, 2,000 Texas men joined the Union army. (Some question these figures since white males of draft age in Texas only numbered about 100,000.) Considering the state was an under-populated frontier, Texas’ contribution was the highest percentage of soldiers of any state, north or south. Many never returned. We had a dog in that fight.
For four long and bloody years, the South held off, and sometimes defeated, the largest and best-equipped army in the world. Texas regiments fought in every major battle. When the first companies of Texas soldiers reached Richmond, Va., Confederate President Jefferson Davis greeted them by declaring, “Texans! The troops of other states have their reputations to gain, but the sons of the defenders of the Alamo have theirs to maintain.” The men of Hood’s Texas Brigade were “always favorites” of Gen. Robert E. Lee. (As a career army officer, Lee spent more time in Texas than he did in the Confederate Army.) He often praised their fighting qualities, remarking that none had brought greater honor to their native state than “my Texans.” Then his favorites went out and got shot.
I am not a member of the SCV although two of my ancestors, Gen. Turner Ashby and his younger brother and second-in-command, Capt. Richard Ashby, were both cavalry officers in the Army of Northern Virginia. In a Virginia cemetery sits a gray, granite tomb bearing crossed cavalry sabers and the inscription: “The Brothers Ashby.” They were both killed by Yankees. The tomb is easy to find, just one plot away from a similar tomb inscribed, “The Brothers Patton.” Apparently my part of the family is descended from Pvt. AWOL Ashby who was responsible for Ashby’s Rout and Ashby’s Retreat.
As for slavery in Texas, three quarters of families in antebellum Texas didn’t own slaves. Despite this, in early 1863, President Lincoln discussed with his Register of the Treasury a plan to “remove the whole colored race of the slave states into Texas.” Nothing came of it. But the planters who held many slaves constituted the state’s wealthiest class, and called the shots, on how the state was operated. Indeed, owners of 15 or more slaves were exempt from the military draft. But the planters would fight to the last poor, white boy. So why did Texas’ Johnny Rebs go marching off to war? Civil War authority Shelby Foote recounts an incident in which a Union soldier asks a Confederate prisoner why he was fighting. The Rebel responded, “Because you’re down here.” Victors write the history, so everyone knows about Andersonville, but what about Camp Douglas? It was a camp for Confederate POWs outside Chicago. A trolley line was built out to the camp and bleachers set up so Chicagoans could go out and watch the Confederate soldiers in rags behind barbed wire stumbling around in the mud. A class act.
It may surprise newcomers from the north and elsewhere to see so many places – counties, schools, parks – named after Southern leaders, and so many monuments to our boys who fought for the South. Why does Texas have a Jeff Davis County or a Confederate flag flying at UT’s stadium or the CSA seal on the Capitol’s rotunda floor? Just remember the impact on the war was much worse in the South. By 1866 you could walk around Boston or New York City or Chicago and forget there had been a war. But visit Atlanta or Richmond with their blackened ruins, even visit Texas with its occupation Union troops, and witness another story. As Alistair Cooke said in his TV series, “America,” the South wasn’t just defeated, it was destroyed – more than either Germany or Japan at the end of WW II. So, newcomer, one of the stars in the Stars and Bars is the Lone Star. Texas paid its dues to join the club. You should learn what influenced us before you arrived. Why? Because, as the Rebel soldier said, you’re down here.
Ashby whistles Dixie at firstname.lastname@example.org