Reenacting Reconciliation

May 21, 2013, 8:43 pm

[Guest post! Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai of Angelo State University is kind enough to write for Edge on reconciliation and memory in modern day Texas. Post and photos copyright K. Wongsrichanalai 2013]

Dedicating a new monument

Living in San Angelo, Texas, I often feel like I am living precisely at the edge of the American West. There seems to be a constant drought, the summers are punishing, and the temperature can fluctuate wildly, going from triple digits to freezing in a matter of hours. When I first arrived in this city of nearly 100,000, I wondered what kind of people would settle here. As it turns out, Fort Concho, established by the United States Army in 1867, marked the beginning of this frontier settlement. Buffalo soldiers manned the fort and attempted to keep the Comanche in check as settlers and ranchers moved westward. Some of the individuals who came to West Texas were former Civil War soldiers, Union and Confederate, who brought their broken bodies to this sparse region. As the twentieth century dawned, former Confederates invited the local Union veterans to join them at the reunion grounds in Christoval, a small community twenty miles south of San Angelo.

On April 13, 2013, Thomas Jefferson’s 270th birthday and the 152nd anniversary of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, I attended a monument dedication ceremony for these reunion grounds. What I witnessed was not merely the dedication of a monument but also a reenactment of the process of reconciliation.

For those unfamiliar with the period or process, reconciliation began in the 1880s and 1890s but fully peaked in the first two decades of the twentieth century as the nation approached the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War. The process—chronicled by scholars such as David Blight, Gary Gallagher, and Caroline Janney—involved the reunion of Union and Confederate veterans. Both sides, seeking to find meaning in the nation’s bloodiest conflict, complimented the other for their masculinity and bravery in the war, all the while relegating the controversies over slavery, emancipation, and the contributions of African Americans to the background. The war, therefore, became a demonstration of white men’s bravery rather than a conflict sparked by deep divisions over the issue of slavery’s expansion into the western territories.

The Order of the Confederate Rose

On that Saturday morning in Christoval, I witnessed a reenactment—although it was likely unintentional—of this same reconciliationist trend that advanced the state rights nature of the war with no mention of slavery and highlighted the bravery of the Confederacy’s soldiers. Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) and the Order of the Confederate Rose, baking in the warm sun and bathing in the West Texas dust, dressed in military and period uniforms for the event.

The ceremony began with three pledges of allegiance: to the flag of United States of America, to the Texas flag, and to the Confederate flag. (The handy pamphlet provided the words for the latter two.) For those unfamiliar with the pledge that young children in Texas are apparently taught, a person promises to “Honor the Texas flag. I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one state under God, one and indivisible.” As for the pledge to the Confederate flag, it goes like this: “I salute the Confederate flag with affection, reverence, and undying devotion to the cause for which it stands.”

The people in the ceremony took these pledges seriously without noticing the irony that they were pledging allegiance to both the United States and Confederate flags. And no one seemed to wonder what “the cause for which” the Stars and Bars stood for was either. Perhaps the person with the “secede” bumper sticker on his truck had a problem with swearing allegiance to both the United States and Texas.

Confederate and iPhone
IMG 0727

Making a direct connection to the veterans’ ceremonies of the early twentieth century, one of the members of the SCV quoted former Confederate General Stephen D. Lee’s 1906 charge:

To you, Sons of Confederate Veterans, we submit the vindication of the cause for which we fought; to your strength will be given the defense of the Confederate soldier’s good name, the guardianship of his history, the emulation of his virtues, and the perpetuation of those principles he loved and which made him glorious and which you also cherish. Remember, it is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations.

If Lee’s charge was not direct enough, one participant quoted another contemporary who declared:

We sons of you men and women are steadily becoming more and more proud of you and what you did. Some have called you ‘rebels,’ but let me tell you that there were never any famed patriots in history more patriotic than you were when you went into war to protect your home and the principles of states’ rights as you saw them.

All of these ceremonies took place under the most solemn circumstances as people watched new members of the SCV being sworn in. Then came the unveiling of the monument, which was a simple design of Texas grey granite. The monument refers to the conflict as “the war between the states” and commemorated the grounds as a reunion place for both Union and Confederate soldiers. Organizers proudly touted that proceeds from gun sales and tax revenue had helped fund the monument.

My Christoval excursion was quite educational as I witnessed a recreation of early twentieth century Civil War commemoration as well as a vivid example of a segment of southern culture in the early twenty first century. In many ways the amnesia has continued, the irony seems oblique to many, and not a lot has changed.

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