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.
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.
My novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.
My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.