Thinking Critically About Texas History

March 1 was the 150th anniversary of Texas’s decision to secede from the United States. I didn’t remember this date from school, and I’m glad to say I didn’t learn of it due to any kind of “celebration” of it here in Austin — as near as I can tell, the date went unmarked here in Texas. That puts us one up on Alabama, which embarrassed itself recently by celebrating the 150th anniversary of Jefferson Davis’s inauguration as president of the Confederacy.

I learned the actual date from the March 1 entry in the  “Disunion” series about the Civil War currently running in The New York Times. It also discussed the piece of Texas Civil War history that has always given me the most pride: Sam Houston, the general who won the Texas Revolution, a president of the Republic of Texas before it joined the Union, and the then governor of the state, opposed secession. He refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, and was kicked out of office.

I’m glad I can point to Sam Houston as a real Texas hero, because so many other so-called leaders in Texas were falling all over themselves to go along with secession. And for me, the U.S. Civil War isn’t just American or Texas history; it’s family history. Minna Graham and her brothers

This is a picture of my grandmother’s grandmother, Minna Graham, and her two brothers, both of whom fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Family legend says they came home with their guns in their hands and said if the Yankees wanted those guns, they could come and get them.

The Graham brothers aren’t the only ancestors of mine who fought in the Civil War. My grandmother’s grandfather on the other side of her family also fought for the Confederates, and on my mother’s side of the family there is the story of several-times-great Uncle Frank Smith from Tennessee who freed his slaves and fought for the Union.

I don’t know if the Grahams owned any slaves, but if they didn’t, it would have been for financial, not moral, reasons. One other interesting fact about the Grahams: their ancestors fought the British in the American Revolution.

Looking at the date Texas joined the Confederacy got me thinking about other bits of state history. March 1 is the day before Texas Independence Day — the date in 1836 when Texas declared independence from Mexico. When it joined the Confederacy, Texas had only been part of the US for a little over 15 years. It’s not hard to think that, given communications at the time, people in Texas weren’t all that tied to the United States.

But that doesn’t make the decision to secede any less of a blot on our history. Let’s face it: When it comes to the Civil War, the North had the moral high ground.

Historians have argued over how much slavery had to do with the Civil War; when I was in college, the popular theory was that it had more to do with economics (though the economics in the deep South, at least, were tied up with slavery). Today, at least according to the “Disunion” series, historians are finding more reasons to put slavery in the forefront of reasons for the war. In most of the South — and likely in much of Texas today, given our current governor’s recent outrageous statement that Texas has the right to secede, which, of course, it does not — the South’s position is defended as “states’ rights” and resistence to federal overreaching.

But the “right” to own other human beings was at the core of those so-called states’ rights. And I think you can also cede the North the high ground on holding together a strong union. Plus, one of the other tidbits I picked up in the “Disunion”  piece was that there were 3,000 U.S. troops stationed in Texas before the Civil War (they surrendered and were evacuated out of the state). What were those troops doing here? Protecting the Anglo Texans from the Indians.

Even in the 1860s Texas was taking federal assistance and screaming about federal intervention at the same time.

Last week I blogged about our ignorance of history. This post is about continuing to look at the history you think you know and changing your view. In high school, I was taught the Civil War from the perspective of “us” against “them.” Fortunately, this was during the Civil Rights Movement, and one of my father’s best friends was a lawyer who represented Freedom Riders in Houston, so I got a better perspective at home.

But my father also once sang “Dixie” at a Confederate Veteran’s Reunion. The romantic ties to the Civil War when you grow up in a southern state are still strong, and you have to be honest when you look at them. Unfortunately, I fear most people go for the romance and don’t think critically.

You don’t have to read a lot of thick history books to do this critical thinking. The “Disunion” series is providing a lot of useful insight in a daily column. And historical fiction is another way to get perspective, so long as you’re careful to choose authors who take the time to get their history right.

If you’re interested in the Civil War, I suggest passing on Gone With the Wind, which certainly romanticizes the South and slavery.  You might choose Toni Morrison’s incredible Beloved as an antidote.

Right now, I’m planning to read Glorieta Pass, by BVC’s own Pati Nagle. It shows me another part of Texas history I seem to have missed in school: Texas efforts to invade New Mexico during the Civil War. New Mexico, as a territory back then, was part of the Union, of course, but somehow I suspect the Texans were motivated by more than loyalty to the Confederacy.
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My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

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Thinking Critically About Texas History — 6 Comments

  1. I too have Confederate roots in the deep south. My father’s family was living in Alabama at the time, having recently moved from Georgia, and before that Virginia. The Radford clan most likely owned slaves due to their economic position, a prosperous farm, much of which is still in family hands, but parceled out among the generations so that none of them has very much usable land anymore.

    To talk to my cousin, the holder of the genealogy, the Union forced the South to secede with their unreasonable demands for control and taxes while giving the south short shift in doling out the benefit of those taxes. It’s all their fault and they have no right to lord their victory over the poor downtrodden southerners….

    The underlying current of animosity has never totally gone away. I fear that in the current political climate it may very well rear it’s ugly head. Palin didn’t invent the phrase “Don’t retreat, reload.” I remember it from my high school years in Virginia.

  2. The Disunion series’ editor and one of the columnists is also the Director of the Starr Center for Writing the American Experience, which awarded us the Patrick Henry Fellowship Prize for this year. Since Disunion began running I click on the NY Times Op-Ed section first thing every morning. I had quit reading that section all together for a very long time previously.

    The young men of my family joined the first Union volunteer regiment (Wisconsin).

    Though the spouse’s family have always been southerners, all the men seem to have fought against the CSA as Union soldiers, according to my FiL. He sent me a passel of photos he’d taken of their headstones last summer.

    Technically New Mexico wasn’t a state (statehood in 1912); but it was United States territory.

    Texas slaveholders moved in prior to war in order to force through a ‘popular election’ to make it slave rather than free soil — another version of what Missouri did in the Kansas-Nebraska territory, making for Bloody Kansas as the slaveholders tried shooting coercion on the majority of free soilers.

    Thus the Texas actions in New Mexico during the Civil War:

    Love, C.

  3. Slavery was the trigger for the Texas Revolution against Mexico; the Mexican government had outlawed slavery, and the US settlers of Texas deeply resented it.

  4. Interesting point about slavery and the Texas Revolution, Raven. If I knew that before, I’d forgotten it — can you direct me to a book or other info on it? I’d like to know more.

    I’ve always thought Stephen F. Austin and the Old Three Hundred Anglo settlers who came to Texas in 1823 intended to make it a separate country from Mexico and/or part of the United States from the beginning, despite all their assurances to the contrary to the Mexican government.

    Foxessa, yes, New Mexico was not a state at that point, but like the rest of the territories, it was part of the Union — that’s what I meant. I just hadn’t realized any of the War was fought there until Pati told me about it.

    Phyl, I have reached the point where I smell a rat anytime someone bitches about taxes. That feeling is enhanced by the current political situation, of course. For all the usual theory that history is written by the victors, Civil War history in the South was written by the losers, and they romanticized their version and glossed over slavery. While I keep reminding people that the Civil War really wasn’t that long ago — 150 years — it is way past time for those who cling to the Gone With the Wind version to wake up and join the 21st Century.

  5. I heard it from someone who I trust and it’s covered in the Wikipedia article on the Texas Revolution. Don’t know a more authoritative source, unfortunately–sorry.