Friday, July 01, 2011

"My own louts": A note on an ancestor during The Late Unpleasantness

An 1862 depiction of an incident from a sequence of events known as the Great Gainesville (Texas) Hanging. Click on the image to enlarge. During the latter half of 1862, more than 50 men were tried and hanged, lynched, or assassinated in Gainesville, Denton, and other north Texas towns; some of them were suspected of being Union sympathizers; some had signed a petition protesting the Confederacy's 1862 conscription order; some were Confederate loyalists killed in acts of reprisal. Most of these men were guilty of nothing more than speaking their minds; some, not even of that much. This series of events "may have been the largest single outbreak of vigilante violence in the history of the United States." Image (and information on this event) from here; the whole online exhibition, Under the Rebel Flag: Life in Texas During the Civil War, is well worth your time, especially if you're a Texan.

As a boy I was, it's safe to say, obsessed with the Civil War. In elementary school, I could (and did, a few times) write an accurate report on the life of Robert E. Lee almost from memory; when I was in junior high school, I almost finished reading all four volumes of Douglas Southall Freeman's biography of Lee; I read everything on the war that was in my elementary school's library; the image of General John Bell Hood, missing an arm and a leg but still leading his men into battle while strapped to his horse, then and now strikes me as something like a succinct summation of the crazed valor of the South (though, as I've gotten older, that adjective gains more and more weight at the expense of the noun). In thinking back over that time, I don't recall dwelling much if at all on the causes or consequences of the war. But I didn't think the North was evil or anything like that; I just found the South more interesting. Meanwhile, my father's side of my family was historically, staunchly Republican--so much so that my mother's brother once joked that in 1964, our car was the only one in Austin, Texas, with a Goldwater bumper sticker on it. That may not be much of an exaggeration, actually.

I have also known since childhood that my father's family's Republican leanings stretched back to my great-great-grandfather, whose first and middle names were John Lawrence. After the Civil War, he hosted meetings of the Republican Party in his place of business (whose building still stands on Sixth Street in Austin) until with the end of Reconstruction, it was said, he and his family felt compelled to move out of the city. I don't know the exact nature of the "feeling compelled." Given the vehemence with which the citizenry reviled the Republican Reconstruction-era governors (in particular Edmund Davis, who rewarded John Lawrence with an appointment as alderman in Austin)--so much so that Texas' post-Reconstruction constitution renders its governors the 2nd-weakest of the 50 states--I can imagine that implied violence may very well have been part of the equation. At the very least, his business probably suffered during that time.

However, and a bit confusingly, I have also known since childhood that John Lawrence enlisted in a Confederate artillery battery at the outset of the War. As nearly as I can tell, this unit never saw action; its purpose may have been to defend Austin from potential Union attack or, perhaps, lend support to frontier units defending against Indian raids and general lawlessness. (Texas' need for men to serve that function created tension between it and the Confederate government.) I feel certain (or, to be more honest, I hope) that my great-great-grandfather's sympathies lay more with Central Texas' German immigrant population's substantial resistance to secession (though himself Norwegian, his wife was German, and his sons married into German families (what other Lutherans in Austin were there, after all?)), that his enlisting was at best done out of his love of Austin rather than a love of secession. There's also the less-happy possibility, of course, that he enlisted as a go-along-to-get-along gesture.

I am proud of what I know of John Lawrence, but what I know is, really, very little. I know a few facts. I do not know his heart. For all I know, his alliance with the Republicans after the war may also have been a go-along-to-get-along gesture, though a quick read of Davis' biography (he himself was a Southern Unionist) suggests to me that Davis, a man with few friends in Austin, would have seen through most such gestures. Besides: Seeing as it was the cool thing in Austin to hate the provisional governments, John Lawrence would have gained more by not cozying up with the Republicans.

But back to his enlisting in that artillery battery at the outbreak of the war. After running across something this morning, I'm willing to add a third possible motive for doing so: fear of reprisal if he didn't somehow demonstrate his loyalty to secession.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I often nod affirmatively in Ta-Nehisi Coates' direction. Last year, he and his readers undertook a discussion of James McPherson's single-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom; during that discussion, Coates was struck by the pervasiveness of the incontrovertible historical record showing that, for the seceding states, its publicly-stated reasons for leaving the Union really did all come down to defending and preserving slavery--that even the stated rationale behind the "states' rights" argument was asserting the right to continue to practice slavery and oppose the national government's attempts to implement policies that the southern states saw as indirect attacks on slavery. Anyway, out of that discussion Coates has, in various contexts, facilitated a recurring discussion of various documents from the years leading up to secession, and it has made for fascinating, even revelatory reading.

This morning, I ran across one of those posts that I hadn't seen before: a May 1861 letter written to a Mr. A. Newman by the Committee of Safety in the Texas county where Newman resides, which states that, because he has been reported to "have expressed abolition sentiments before truthful and trust-worthy citizens living in our midst and [. . .] the present crisis will admit of no such expressions," Texas having seceded on March 2 of that year, Newman and his family have 30 days to leave the state, "Else you will be dealt with according to Mob law." (emphasis in the original). The letter concludes with this threat: "[S]hould you heedlessly disregard the above warning, your friends if you have any, will deeply regret your folly."

I wish I knew where exactly this letter was written, but in the larger scheme of things the particulars don't matter, especially in a state-wide atmosphere, stirred up by Lincoln's election, of mistrust and suspicions, rumors of slave revolts, and shootings between pro- and anti-slavery sympathizers akin to those in mid-1850s Kansas. This was a political environment so poisonous that even Sam Houston, the man who defeated the Mexican army to win Texas' independence and served as the Republic of Texas' first president--in other words, a man as close to a god-come-to-earth as Texas is ever likely to have--was forced out as governor when he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy. In such an environment, lesser figures in the South who opposed secession had few options--my great-great-grandfather, and perhaps some of your ancestors, too, included.

So, no, as a result of all this, I am no closer to knowing John Lawrence's reasoning for the choices he made during the 1860s and '70s. But, seeing as how, before this morning, I had not known much of what you've read here, I have a much greater appreciation for the world he had to live in. It was a dangerous place for someone even to be rumored to have anti-secessionist inclinations--the state could not and/or would not protect such people (during the Great Gainesville Hanging, 14 already-jailed people were taken from jail and lynched because other people got frustrated by the slow pace of the trials to make official the foregone conclusion of those jailed people's guilt. Assuming my great-great-grandfather was a Unionist, as I think was indeed the case, he had, basically, two "noble" choices and some other ones requiring him, to a greater or lesser extent, to check his conscience at the door. He could actively resist the secessionists and risk death, or leave for Mexico or Union-held territory--those were the noble ones. He appears to have chosen neither of them.

I'll be honest: I don't know how I feel about that. The easy thing to say would be that he should have acted on principle--but that's easy to say not for reasons of living in our relatively more enlightened times but because I have the advantage of hindsight and, frankly, the luxury of my choice's being one that does not potentially put at risk my life or that of my family. Many, many people with far less to risk have chosen far more poorly than he appears to have. One thing I do know I feel, though, is that John Lawrence now feels a little less legendary and a little more human to me. As we move through the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I hope that knowing a bit more about his world makes me more thoughtful about it.


R. Sherman said...

It is truly strange how much of our pasts are similar. My (Missouri) people were non Slave owning, abolitionist State's rights types who favored neutrality as the first, best course, but feared Lincoln wanted to be a dictator or king. General Lyon's usurpation of State authority sent them headlong into the Confederate camp.

They remained Democrats until 1965 when Johnson needed the Republicans to pass Civil Rights Legislation, because the Democrats were against it. That pissed my dad off that he vowed he'd never vote for a Democrat again. Thus, he held his nose and voted for Nixon in 1968.

Anyway, figuring out anyone's motives for behaviors during those times is practically impossible, unless they wrote them down contemporaneously, and not after the fact to try to justify prior acts.

I'm going to come back to this at my place when I review a book I read on the beach about Lincoln's trashing the constitution in order to completely remake the country in an image he preferred. Before I post it, I need to get my barricade ready for the inevitable onslaught of slings and arrows.


John B. said...

Looking forward to the review, Randall.

Thanks for sharing a bit about your family during that time. I didn't get around to saying it in the post, but my chief realization from the reading I did was that I just had no idea how tumultuous Texas was during the war years, and how dangerous it was for dissenters. I feel more than a little embarrassed not to have known that long ago. Anyway, knowing that has the effect of putting some ground under my ancestors' feet, even if I'm still not certain what all they thought about that ground.