Walking among the dead seeking hints about our past

Let us endeavor to live our lives that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.

Words of Mark Twain engraved on the memorial for Bertie Lee Hall (1926-1999), member of the Texas House of Representatives, storyteller and writer

Getting to the cemetery first is not a race you normally want to win, but, when General Edward Burleson (1798-1851) died, leaders of the Republic of Texas realized they were caught flat-footed as to where to honor their heroes. Burleson had served with Ben Milam in San Antonio; fought at San Jacinto; and served as Vice President of the young republic. House member Andrew Jackson Hamilton (1815-1875) offered his own property in East Austin, with the state assuming responsibility for the burial ground in 1854.

Other prominent figures from the early days of the Republic of Texas gradually were reinterred in places of honor in the Texas State Cemetery. The remains of Stephen F. Austin (1793-1836) were moved from Peach Point to a commanding spot by Governor Oscar Colquitt in 1910. The statue of him was made by San Antonio sculptor Pompeo Coppini (1870-1957), creator of the currently controversial Cenotaph in Alamo Plaza.

But before those occupants were relocated, the primary thrust of the memorial cemetery was to provide homes for Texas’ Civil War generals. Well, at least the ones who wore gray. The main honoree in this category, judging from the grandeur of his monument, was Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862), whose body was moved from New Orleans in 1866. Austin sculptor Elisabet Ney (1833-1907) was commissioned to create a life-size white marble likeness of the general who died at the Battle of Shiloh, and it reposes in an elegant Gothic-style chapel.

The generals needed their men nearby, and, as the population of the Confederate Men’s Home dwindled, the rows of white granite markers multiplied. More than 2,200 former Confederate soldiers and their spouses are buried in the Texas State Cemetery.

Eleven governors found their final resting place in the Texas State Cemetery. Judging from its grand height, one might assume Edmund Davis (1827-1883) was one of Texas’ favorite governors, but many Texans did not forget their Confederate heritage quickly. Davis fled Texas during the Civil War and was made a Colonel in charge of recruiting members of the First Texas Cavalry for Union forces. His governorship during the bitter Reconstruction period increased the lingering animosity, but his brother funded his monument to ensure it soared over most of its neighbors.

There is one group of legislators whose headstones you will not find among those of a multitude of Texas politicians in General Johnston’s or the governors’ neighborhood – 52 African American men who served in the Texas Constitutional Convention or the Texas Legislature in the years following the Civil War. Areas in Texas where plantations held hundreds of slaves suddenly experienced a period where the former masters were outnumbered by these eager new voters. It took white men a number of years to disenfranchise some of the eligible voters by instituting a poll tax. Redrawing district lines helped as well, and violent activities of the Klu Klux Klan drove large numbers of African Americans toward northern states. Their strategies were so successful, no African Americans were elected to the State House or Senate for the next half a century.

A handsome black marble monument was erected in 2010 as an attempt to rectify that historical “oversight” in the Texas State Cemetery. It offers a refreshingly straightforward summary of the suppression of African American voters in the state. The only flaw is the location of the marker; it is segregated from the main historical section of the cemetery. It is placed nowhere near Stephen F. Austin and Johnston’s Gothic chapel; it stands in a spot easily overlooked by most visitors. Of course, the State of Texas still lists Confederate Heroes’ Day, January 19 in 2021, among its holidays.

Monuments for other groups include one for veterans who merited Purple Hearts and to those of Viet Nam.

A few reminders of Texas’ western heritage are sprinkled in among the markers.

Of course, football is big in Texas so you would expect to encounter sports notables.

Wandering around you might notice numerous headstones with the names of people you did not remember as having died. You would be correct. These are people who plan ahead. Because you never know when you might leave this earth, and you certainly want to be sure that your whole resume is carved in stone as you desired. It also reserves your spot even if something goes awry on your resume; say you don’t seek reelection for the Texas House as part of a plea bargain arrangement.

I am including snapshots of the Lombardinos because of their striking inclusion of the Alamo and the San Jacinto Monument imagery. And, well, Pinky, because the Mister was somewhat bored by this excursion and found her stone mildly amusing – memorable punster that she was.

And numerous writers are recognized throughout, including the humorous Cactus Pryor, hard-living Gary Cartwright and historian Ted Fehrenbach. No idea why I brought them up last.

And since we’re haunting the graveyard, might as well contribute a snippet Cartwright recorded about now-fellow occupant, J. Frank Dobie:

I jokingly told a TV reporter that I’d seen Dobie’s ghost sitting in a rocker on the gallery (of Paisano writing retreat). Later, seated in the same rocker, I had – or maybe dreamed that I had – a brief conversation with Dobie. ‘You don’t really know what you’re doing, do you?’ the gravelly voice asked. ‘No.’ ‘Don’t worry. None of us do. Writing is a process of discovery. You learn by doing.'”

“Ghost Writer,” Gary Cartwright, Texas Monthly, January 2010

You can learn a lot about Texas history without going to the Texas State Cemetery. It’s not exciting, but it does get you pondering different aspects of the state’s past and how the choices of whom the state chooses to honor reveal its character and values through the years.

As J. Frank Dobie wrote, “The man for whom history is bunk is almost invariably as obtuse to the future as he is blind to the past.”

Will just end this post with the signature word Cactus Pryor coined to sign off his radio broadcasts: “Thermostrockimortimer!”

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