1889 speech rhetoric, 2012 ‘battle’ create opportunities to discuss war’s realities
Almost every day between 2011 and 2015 will be a centenary of some sort of Civil War
A hundred years ago this May, Confederate Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson attacked
Union troops, forcing them to retreat to protect Washington, D.C., from the Rebels. It
certainly looked like the South was winning handily. By the following September, both
sides were devastated at Antietam, the war’s bloodiest day. President Abraham Lincoln
seized the opportunity to announce his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all
slaves in rebel areas, effective Jan. 1, 1863.
Starting Friday (May 18, 2012), a hundred or more Civil War re-enactors will converge on
west Temple to stage a real-life tableau of historical fiction, “The Battle of Temple
Junction.” Donning period-appropriate gray kepis and scratchy wool uniforms, they will
stage full-scale fake battles, historically correct encampments, surgical demonstrations
and cavalry competitions.
This will be the fourth annual such demonstration staged here, sponsored by the Maj.
Robert M. White Camp No. 1250, Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Temple Junction” is a
celebration of memory that never was because no battles ever roiled in Bell County, but
the county sent many men to fight. Temple didn’t exist in 1861.
After the real War Between the States, veterans from the North and South alike flocked to
Bell County for cheap land and opportunities driven by railroads. Long after Appomattox,
their memories of “the Lost Cause” remained and their roles in it, even as their old
social order deteriorated on the Texas frontier.
As settlers from both sides of the conflict arrived to build the county, they brought
deep-seated melancholy for those courtly olden days. As novelist Pat Conroy wrote in his
“Gone with the Wind” analysis, “The Civil War destroyed a civilization of unsurpassable
amenity, chivalry and grace.”
That wistfulness fully bloomed on Dec. 11, 1889, when Temple’s leaders paused to remember
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had died five days earlier on Dec. 6 in New
Orleans. In a way, the departed Confederate president was an “adopted son” to many
Texans. Davis came here first in 1846, when he commanded a volunteer regiment on the Rio
Grande. As Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, Davis recommended
construction of a railroad to the Pacific, and in 1856 he sent camels to Camp Verde in
Kerr County to haul supplies overland.
After Reconstruction, many high-profile Texans campaigned to purchase a Dallas homestead
for Davis. He opted for Mississippi. Then, in 1874, he was offered the presidency of the
newly established Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M
University). Davis declined that, too.
When he died, dozens of Texas cities held public ceremonies. Temple was no exception. The
local commemoration was filled with high-flown speeches. With Temple Mayor William Carton
presiding, a throng gathered downtown to pay respects. Confederate veterans took
prominent roles in the program, including the Rev. Wilder Richard Maxwell, First Baptist
Church’s pastor and former Confederate. Taking his cue, speakers frequently invoked the
Almighty’s name forcefully and frequently.
Former Mayor Augustus Lewy, scion of a prominent Jewish family in Montgomery, Ala.,
witnessed firsthand Davis’ election by the Confederacy’s Provisional Congress and
inauguration on Feb. 18, 1861. When Lewy finished his expressive oratory, the band played
“Dixie” and “a feeling aroused by old memories caused many a scar-worn soldier to heave a
sigh,” reported Temple newspapers.
Attorney William Skidmore Banks drew hearty applause when he eloquently described “the
spirit of chivalry in the antebellum south,” just as author Conroy posited a century
later. When all the speeches had ended, Confederate veterans formed a procession and
encouraged their Union counterparts to join them – a grand symbol of the New South.
About 200 converged on the rutty city streets as church bells tolled solemn cadences. The
old soldiers who at one time traded lead bullets now marked time together in fact and in
memory — united and reconstructed. For the next several decades, Belton and Temple
veterans gathered each June to observe the Confederate president’s death.
Civil War tableaux evoke questions, just as they did when Davis died in 1889 and when the
“Battle of Temple Junction” fires its first volley each year. The problem is time and
narrative often trick our brains. The historical memories of ragtag Civil War soldiers
are transformed to become our present-day quixotic images of herculean ancestors.
So, whose memories do we keep?
Neither the narratives of 1889 nor 2012 include other views. Where are the stories of
the bitter sectionalism that sliced the country like a meat cleaver in the 1850s or that
divides us now? Where are the memories of slavery? Where are the explanations of
emancipation’s importance? Where are the reminders of the real horrors and gore of war?
Both events, nearly 125 years apart, sanitize violence and slavery, relegating them to
distant corners of our cerebrums. The flowery speeches in 1889 failed to bring up these
onerous issues. How can those quest ions be answered in 2012 amid the period costumes and
associated trappings in a grassy west Temple field?
Obsessing over authenticity of muzzle-loaders and fictitious battles detracts from the
uncomfortable truths about our human failings and the real cost of war and injustice. In
memory is found the greatest wisdom, if only we have the courage to remember.
“Perspectives” gives an in-depth gaze into life and living on the edge of Blackland
Prairie. Patricia Benoit is an award-winning commentator, historian and former editor
with the Telegram. Contact Patricia by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.