Last Memorial Day, longtime Trib photographer Rod Aydelotte and I visited historic Oakwood Cemetery for a Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans tribute to veterans of the most horrendous of all American wars. A couple dozen folks showed up, including an ensemble of re-enactors who fired a salute near some Confederate figures’ graves and then, with genial apologies to this mostly aging crowd (including me), dutifully trudged onward to another part of the cemetery to do so again.
I wasn’t as moved by the ceremony as the setting. With its engulfing canopy of huge, gnarled oaks and its fading gravestones, Oakwood conjures up as much of the Old South as any cemetery in Texas. I’m especially fascinated by the more ornate graves, including that of former Texas Gov. Richard Coke, who helped craft the state constitution we have today. His stern, bearded likeness towers over all others, almost as if surveying the last bit of earth he would ever claim or standing watch over his fellow and obedient subjects. A cane in his right hand steadies his lanky frame on his pedestal of prestige and honor.
The inscription is designed to impress:
Characterized by a splendid manhood
The brave soldier
The able and impartial judge
The enlightened and patriotic governor
The distinguished senator in Congress for 18 years
Always true to the people
And faithful to every trust
Nearby is a small marker dutifully noting Coke’s service as a captain in the Texas Infantry in service of the Confederate States of America.
One can’t help wondering: Is the strongly worded resume on Coke’s stately tombstone bent on impressing that he was far more than one who, after Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election as president, took up arms against his own country in what some deem treason, no matter how heroic he might have proven on the battlefield? Or is this subtle graveyard propaganda furthering semi-myths of the so-called Lost Cause, replete with chivalrous knights valiantly defending homeland and heritage?
Probably a little of both. He’s obviously proud of his military service but doesn’t dwell on the cause or colors for which he fought. Or at least those who erected the marker didn’t.
Coke’s statue faces, yards away, that of Dr. David Richard Wallace. A historical marker near his tombstone informs all that he too served the Confederacy (as a surgeon) but also taught at Baylor University (both in Independence and later Waco), helped found local and state medical associations and served as an early pioneer in psychiatry. He was particularly brilliant in the latter field.
If one gauges these monuments with healthy skepticism and respectful scrutiny — these are, after all, cemetery memorials over beloved dead, erected by grieving families, friends and fellow citizens, and not strictly public monuments — they nonetheless offer one reason I have generally dismissed the idea of removing more flamboyant Confederate memorials from public grounds. Any close understanding of history demands inspecting and studying these in the way one studies and questions paintings, sculptures and daguerreotypes of historic figures. What is being conveyed? What is suggested? How does it square with history itself?
Yet the idea Confederate monuments celebrating uniformed, gallant warriors on horseback might be instructional, even for what they were not, has now been badly battered. The damage was done by this month’s deadly violence in Charlottesville involving white supremacists, KKK disciples and neo-Nazis protesting removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The rally also, in the words of former KKK grand wizard David Duke, fulfilled the promises of a president who has exploited racism when politically convenient. And surely President Trump aggravated matters again last week when some sought words of unity and healing. The irony: Many Trump supporters, in letters to this newspaper, stress we should put our differences aside and rally behind this man. But did he rally and unite us?
Once upon a time Confederate monuments such as those at the Texas Capitol seemed oddly incongruous but innocuous. For many decades, we Americans seemed to be improving in sensitive matters of race relations, up to and including the 2008 election of our first black president. Now we’ve relapsed, evident in everything from the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling crippling the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to passing a sanctuary city bill in Texas that, beginning Sept. 1, opens up minorities to racial profiling by law enforcement and undermines the ability of police chiefs to prevent it.
Among the casualties may well be those Confederate monuments with their not-so-subtle glorification of Southern gentlemen braced for barbaric hordes from the North. The accent is on duty, honor and heritage while trivializing Confederacy resolve to keep African Americans in bondage for the sake of the Southern economy. States’ rights may be cited as the reason for rebellion in revisionist histories, but frank declarations of secession from Texas and other states make clear the real reason for hostility with Lincoln and the North: the perceived threat to slavery.
Consider the name given the Civil War by at least some Southerners: the War Against Northern Aggression, even though Fort Sumter offers evidence to the contrary. Consider what former slaves labeled it: the Freedom War. Confederate monuments only muddy matters. The Lost Cause narrative they propagate has become hopelessly lost in a national swelling that is anything but chivalrous, gallant or benevolent. The monuments have evolved into flash points for racism in its most hideous forms, including Nazism. After Charlottesville, the 2015 massacre of nine black church members in Charleston and last week’s disgraceful vandalizing of a Confederate soldier statue in Durham, North Carolina, by leftists, it’s no wonder some cities have had enough and want to be rid of troublesome monuments. And certainly any well-curated history museum for the rebel soldier would have been more fitting than being toppled and kicked by a mob.
Thus we now enter the battle over monuments, memorials and historical plaques. The city of Baltimore removed under cover of darkness last week four Confederate monuments, including one dedicated to Maryland’s Confederate women. A bust of President Lincoln in a predominantly black Chicago neighborhood was torched and battered. And Texas’ State Preservation Board is now considering removal of a 1959 “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque from the Texas Capitol. Playing into Lost Cause fictions, it specifically reads that “the War Between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.” Which fits recent efforts by some members of the Texas State Board of Education to give greater credit for the Civil War to sectionalism and states’ rights.
Waco has no major Confederate monuments beyond those honoring cemetery dead, something that surprises given our city’s horrific lynching past. Yet even the more restrained markers in Oakwood serve as rallying points, though not in demonstrations of violence. Some folks simply drop by to pay their respects or to marvel.
When I stopped by Oakwood Thursday, I arrived at Gov. Coke’s imposing memorial at the same time as an aging couple from Bell County. They were there to visit the grave of Texas governor and Baylor University president Pat Neff, to whom they are related. But the man — his sympathies conveyed by his “Make America Great Again” cap — wanted to first take photos of the statues of Coke and others before they were “desecrated.” As we talked, he said he feared the nation was headed for another civil war and we discussed how it might play out. At one point, I said I regretted that President Obama, for all his powers of oratory, had not brought Americans together — and that the current occupant of the White House most certainly had not.
“Oh, c’mon,” he erupted. “He’s only been in there six months! Give the man a chance!”
In another section of the cemetery, a Waco police officer conferred with two men about precautions to protect overlooked graves of others who served in the Confederacy, including markers reading simply: “Unknown. Confederate soldier.” Given the current mood, Oakwood Cemetery is getting more visits and more scrutiny from law enforcement to prevent vandalism such as that already visited on some graves, including the beheading of a bust memorializing one of Gov. Coke’s sons in 2013. (The head remains missing, despite plans by Oakwood Cemetery to replace it, and the vandalism didn’t appear political.)
The past several years reinforce not only how far we’ve come in matters of race but how far we’ve regressed. During Memorial Day at Oakwood this year, a cordial, white-haired Sons of Confederate Veterans official — reflecting upon several separate Memorial Day events around town and the paucity of folks at the cemetery — told photographer Rod Aydelotte he lamented more folks couldn’t get together for such occasions. Unfortunately, and for reasons that go all the way back to the Lost Cause and what it seems to be enabling and encouraging these days, that prospect looks less and less likely all the time.