Sunday, January 30, 2011

Texas Fails to Recognize Its History

Texas officially ignores 150th anniversary of secession
Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011 By Steve Campbell

Texas proudly cloaks itself in history, but one of the most momentous anniversaries in state history will pass this week without a whisper of official acknowledgment.

One hundred and fifty years ago, on Feb. 1, 1861, Texas seceded from the Union, joined the Confederacy and marched headlong into the Civil War.

Tuesday will be just one historic milepost among hundreds of big days over the next four years as the nation continues its struggle to understand -- and quarrels over -- the Civil War, which started April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter, S.C., and dragged on until May 13, 1865, at the Battle of Palmito Ranch near Brownsville.

"The recognition is not just about dates and battles but about a turning point and a change in our society," said Tom Leach, a Mansfield engineer and president of the Civil War Center of Texas, a nonprofit educational group. "It affects things even today. It's not much different from what President Obama said the other night about our point in a time of change."

While some states have launched ambitious Civil War commemorative programs -- with much fanfare and more than a little controversy -- Texas isn't officially joining this campaign.

Some members of heritage groups say the state should be flying its flag.

"There's a lot of Civil War history here, but they don't seem to care," said Mark Vogl, the second lieutenant commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Texas Division.

"This is big money. Gettysburg brings in millions of dollars a year," said Vogl, of Latch in East Texas. "Why aren't we doing something?"

But historians and prolific Civil War authors, such as Don Frazier of McMurry University and Steve Woodworth of Texas Christian University, say that even after 15 decades, the old wounds are too tender to touch.

"The governor of Virginia got in trouble by declaring Confederate History Month. He could have just called it Civil War Month. It's a very touchy subject," Woodworth said.

'American conundrum'

After all, Frazier asks, what does recognition of the nation's worst tragedy look like?

"When you've got so many people affected in so many profoundly different ways, all trying to look at it from the same angle, it's really difficult. It doesn't have a nice neat bow around it," he said.

"If you are black or a Northerner, you're looking at it from a pretty different point of view. I've worked with some folks who came from the North, and they said one of the things about the South that creeps them out is that you have the monuments to the Confederates in your town squares," Frazier said.

"But the Southerners believed in it, they voted for it with their musket butts and their blood," he said. "It remains the great American conundrum."

He points to a 2009 meeting of the Texas Historical Commission where "we were trying to figure out how to mark the Civil War. It essentially broke up inconclusively. We didn't know what to do," he said.

"Other states are making a big deal out of the anniversary, but it's tied to tourism. In South Carolina and Virginia, you have destinations to go to. In Texas, where do you send people to commemorate the Civil War?" Frazier said

"But make no mistake, individual Texans and individual organizations are going to mark the daylights out of it," Frazier said. "But your state government is going to avoid it assiduously. It's too touchy."

Hysteria at home

Texas may have been hundreds of miles from the bloody battles at Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg, but from the beginning, the war reverberated across the state.

"There was a lot of tension and fear. People were scared," Woodworth said. "It led to some violence. There were a number of lynchings in Tarrant County, and not all of them were black people. It wasn't good for your health to show up here and be seen as a Yankee with potentially abolitionist leanings. It was a time of hysteria."

And with the men gone to fight and federal troops no longer protecting settlers from Indians, the frontier got shoved back east, he said.

"You couldn't escape the impact of the war in Texas. If you lived in Parker County, you got your scalp lifted by the Comanches. There was hardship on the home front," Woodworth said.

In 1860, the Texas population was only about 600,000, and 181,000 of those were slaves, he said.

About 90,000 Texans fought in the war, Woodworth said, and nearly 10 percent of those were killed in action.

Frazier puts the casualty figure for Texans at more like 20,000 when disease is added to the equation.

But relatively few were killed at the five battles fought in the state.

"All the battles fought in Texas were quite minor. But Texans themselves served in all the major armies of the Confederacy. And they were some of the most sought-after troops. They did very well. There's no denying that," Woodworth said.

Which is not surprising, Frazier said, noting that in 1861, Texas was all about testosterone.

"It was overwhelmingly young and male, and the Civil War gave great opportunities for these young hotspurs to go off and do their thing. They went and did what Texans had done for the previous three decades, which was to shoulder a musket and fight the state's enemies," he said.

"You look at how the war progressed, every time Union forces tried to invade Texas, they by and large left humiliated. ... At Sabine Pass, 36 Irishmen defeated a force of 5,000. Those are the kind of victories that Texans love," Frazier said.

"Where Texans fought abroad, the Red River Campaign was almost a Texas show. Texans roll back a huge invasion force in Louisiana. Then you've got Hood's Texas Brigade fighting with Robert E. Lee, and he refers to them as his most reliable troops," he said.

"Everywhere you look, Texans are getting praised for being military badasses. Whether that's malarkey or true, sometimes perception is more important than reality," Frazier said.

A state reshaped

When the Confederacy was smashed, Texas emerged as a comparatively unscathed survivor.

It became the one Southern state that still had promise, an open land that wasn't punctuated by blackened chimneys or thousands of soldiers' graves.

"The war set up the conditions to craft modern Texas," said Frazier, who gives a classroom lecture titled "How Texas Won the Civil War."

"Texans emerged from the Civil War not dead, their cattle are fat and have multiplied, and they won all the important fights they were in. It's plus, plus, plus," Frazier said.

This wasn't lost on other former Rebels, who migrated here by the thousands.

"In many ways, Texas becomes the Confederacy in concentrate after the Civil War," Frazier said. "They didn't just stay in Alabama and beg scraps off the federal government. They said, 'Screw it, I'm going to Texas.'"

And they helped shape the state's stereotypical image.

"Look at the lawlessness that came to Texas after the war. Where do you think that comes from? It comes from a society of dysfunctional and angry people before the days of Prozac. The gun was the answer to everything," Leach said. "They came with bitter memories. When you look at it with that viewpoint, some of the attitudes are still carried on today and form the Texas attitude toward things. Not as a result of the Alamo, but as a result of the Civil War."

Old but relevant

Remembering the Civil War in Texas should go beyond honoring a brave ancestor or a lost cause, celebrating saving the Union or commemorating the abolition of slavery, Frazier said. Many of the issues from Feb. 1, 1861, have not faded away.

"In Texas, one of the biggest complaints was that the federal government was terribly inept at protecting Texas citizens from Indian raids and degradations across the border. You substitute narcoterrorists for Comanches, and you have some pretty similar stuff going on," Frazier said with a laugh.

But he said it's still hard to get his students to make the connections between Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Rick Perry and Barack Obama.

"What's amazing is that the issues are still 100 percent relevant," Frazier said. "Especially when you talk about the relationship of the federal government to the state governments and the meaning of liberty within the American union."

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