Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Court of Appeals Overules Texas on Sons of Confederate Veterans License Plates

On July 14, a Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans ruled that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles had violated the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ free speech rights and engaged in “viewpoint discrimination” when it rejected the group's proposal for a specialty license plate in 2011. The panel opinion stated "that the only reason the board rejected the plate is the viewpoint it represents" and "this is exactly what the First Amendment was designed to protect against."

The panel decision is expected to force Texas to issue license plates with the Confederate battle flag. Texas would become the largest state to sell the plates, which feature the words “Sons of Confederate Veterans 1896” and the red Confederate “battle flag” with blue bars and white stars. The judgment renewed the debate between those who say the symbol honors Confederate heritage and others who see it as racially offensive and hurtful. The approval means that Texas could join nine other states that issue plates honoring the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

An attorney for the Texas chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said the ruling reaffirms that “the government cannot step into an issue and silence one side while endorsing the viewpoint of the other side.” In response to the ruling, the president of the Texas NAACP called it is "a sad day for African-Americans and others victimized by hate groups in this state." He said the plate “marginalizes American citizens” and is akin to memorializing slavery.

The Texas Attorney General’s office, which represented the Department of Motor Vehicles, said it is considering options, such as requesting a hearing before the full appeals court or taking it to the US Supreme Court.

The Attorney General’s office said the Department of Motor Vehicles has “complete editorial control” over plate designs. The office said, does “not give anyone a right to commandeer the machinery of government to support their desired message.” The appeals court countered with, “The tortured procedural history that eventually led to the denial of Texas SCV’s plate demonstrates that the subjective standard of offensiveness led to viewpoint discrimination.”

The decision may have wide implications. The court said the tags should be considered as private speech and be protected by the First Amendment. The court also said the Department of Motor Vehicles' standard for what qualifies as offensive was too vague. The ruling may force states to tighten their standards or start issuing plates to groups whose positions may be offensive to other citizens. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,007 groups as active hate groups in the United States in 2012.The Sons of Confederate Veterans is not considered a hate group by the organization. The issue comes down to whether a state government has authority to prohibit objectionable words and symbols vs. free speech advocates.

What do think? Should states enact tighter standards? Does a state-issued plate imply that the state endorses the group and its beliefs? Should a state consider the impact on its other citizens even if it means violating free speech? How is a license plate representing a group different from a bumper sticker with the same message?

I wonder if the parties involved would object to another "sanitized" version.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ashton Villa and General Order No. 3

Ashton Villa, Galveston, TX
Ashton Villa was the site of one of the most celebrated events of emancipation. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. I learned about Ashton Villa's part in the proclamation when I read Ken Byler's story "General Order Number 3" in the June 29, 2014 issue of the Plano Star Courier.

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger
While standing on the balcony of Ashton Villa, Granger read "General Order No. 3:"
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
On January 7, 1859, Colonel James Moreau Brown, a prominent hardware merchant and banker, purchased four lots at the corner of 24th and Broadway in Galveston to build his new home.  Brown modified several plans to design the three-story brick home. He used slave labor and skilled European craftsmen to construct one of the first brick structures in Texas

The three-story house was built in Victorian Italianate style, with deep eaves, long windows and ornate verandas that were topped by cast iron lintels. The brick walls were thirteen inches thick to reduce against humidity inside the home and add strength to the structure. Brown's wife, Rebecca Ashton, named the home in honor of her ancestor, Lt. Isaac Ashton, a Revolutionary War hero.

The house was completed in 1861. When the Civil War began, the home was used as the headquarters for the Confederate Army. The Confederates used Ashton Villa for their headquarters throughout the war except for a brief time in the fall of 1862 when Galveston was captured by Union forces. The Union used the house as their command center until Galveston was re-taken by the Confederates during the Battle of Galveston in January 1863. The home remained in Confederate hands for the rest of the war.

In the spring of 1865, Texas contained over 60,000 soldiers of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi under General Edmund Kirby Smith. Morale was very low and desertion and crime were rampant.  When news of the surrender of Lee and other Confederate generals reached Texas around April 20, the senior military leaders pledged to continue the war. However, the enlisted men were not enthusiastic and desertion continued to increase.

On May 14, Confederate troops in Galveston briefly mutinied, but were persuaded to remain in the army. Morale continued to sink and Generals John B. Magruder and Kirby Smith stopped trying  to rally the troops. Instead the Rebel officers discussed how Confederate government property would be distributed. Magruder said that disbanding of the army would prevent crimes by disgruntled soldiers against civilians.

The hurry to disband the army created riots and pillaging of Confederate property. Soldiers and civilians rioted and ransacked warehouse, ships, and trains throughout the state. By May 27, half of the original confederate forces in Texas had deserted or been disbanded, and law and order disappeared in many parts of Texas.

Federal troops did not arrive in Texas to restore order until June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and 2,000 Union soldiers arrived on Galveston Island to take possession of the state and enforce the new freedoms of former slaves. The Stars and Stripes were not raised over Austin until June 25. On June 19 Granger took possession of Ashton Villa and delivered his proclamation freeing the slaves. It is somewhat ironic that Confederate headquarters was used as the site for announcing the end of the institution that caused the war.

Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets with jubilant celebrations. Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas the following year.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The History Detectives Tackle the Sultana Mystery

The SS Sultana was a Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat that exploded on April 27, 1865 in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of her 2,427 passengers died when three of the boat's four boilers exploded and she sank near Memphis.

The wooden steamboat was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Boatyard in Cincinnati for transporting cotton in the lower Mississippi. The 1,719 ton vessel was manned by an 85-man crew. During her lifetime, she operated between St. Louis and New Orleans carrying cotton and Union troops.

On April 21, 1865 the Sultana left New Orleans for St. Louis with 75 to 100 passengers and a cargo of livestock. She stopped at Vicksburg for repairs to her boilers and to take on more passengers. A break was discovered in one of her boliers, and instead of replacing it, a patch was placed over the leak. This repair took about one day compared to three days to replace the boiler. 

With the war over, soldiers tried get on board to return home. More than 2,000 men forced, bribed, and threaten to gain passage on the crowded steamer. With a legal capacity of only 376, she was severely overcrowded. 
Most of the new passengers were Union prisoners of war from Ohio who had just been released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville and were anxious to return home to be cared for by family and friends. The Federal government had contracted with the Sultana to transport these soldiers to their homes. Many of the POWs were very weak due to their poor treatment, battle wounds, and illness.

At 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, the "repaired" boiler exploded and the steamer sank 7 to 9 miles  north of Memphis. The explosion threw some of the passengers on deck into the water and destroyed a large section of the boat. The forward part of the upper decks collapsed into the exposed furnace boxes which caught fire and consumed the remaining superstructure.
The first boat on the scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia II, which arrived at about 3:00 am, an hour after the explosion, and overtook the burning wreck to rescue scores of survivors. The hull of the Sultana drifted about six miles to the west bank of the river, and sank at around dawn near Mound City. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocohontas, and the Navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler.

Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the boat. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were rescued from the tops of semi-submerged trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims were found downriver for months. and many bodies were never recovered. About 700 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 200 of them died later from burns or exposure.

The official death toll calculated by the US Customs Service was 1,800 and other estimates are from 1,300 to 1,900. Of the total casualties, Ohio lost 791 dead. Indiana 491, and Kentucky 194 dead.  Many of the dead were buried at the Memphis National Cemetery. An estimated 700 to 800 survived the disaster.

Controversy has surrounded the disaster with accusations of shoddy repairs to the boiler and sabotage by Confederate pies.  Enter the History Detectives.

The History Detectives tackled the mysterious explosion of the SS Sultana. They tried to answer the question: Was it an act of Confederate sabotage? Faulty machinery? Dangerous conditions? The detectives met with descendants of Rebel boat burners and Sultana survivors, discovered government records, and hunted for the wreck site. The team uncovered a tale of incompetence, bribery, politics and patronage that led all the way to President Lincoln and the White House.

The research conducted by the History Detectives is brilliant.  They approached the problem in using a multi-disciplinary approach.  I recommend that readers view the program and retrace the steps that were used to solve the mystery. The cause of the explosion seems to be due to overloading the Sultana. The crowded conditions on the ship resulted in passengers being packed on deck and hurricane deck which made the ship top heavy and caused it and its boilers to roll as the steamship made her way upstream in the flood-stage waters of the Mississippi. The question now becomes what caused the overloading especially when two other steamships, which could have carried the POWs, passed Vicksburg. 

The obvious reason seems to be greed.  The steamship owners probably bribed Col. Reuben Hatch, the quartermaster at Vicksburg, to pack the ship and thus receive the government's compensation of $5/enlisted man and $10/officer.  The culprit in allowing this was Col. Hatch.  The History Detectives discovered that this incompetent and corrupt officer remained in office by virtue of influence on President Lincoln by his Illinois supporters. Interestingly, the official inquiry found "there is no evidence that it was caused by overcrowding of her decks."   

  • Mention of Assistant Quartermaster R. B. Hatch in Grant's report on Battle of Belmont (Series 1 - Volume 3, Official Records, 271,281).
  • Arrest of Captain Hatch by Grant. "Every day develops further evidences of corruption in the quartermaster's department ..." (Series 1 - Volume 7, Official Records, 546).
  • Advising Brig. Gen. Quinby against taking large transports into lake (Series 1 - Volume 24 (Part I), Official Records, 404).
  • Reports on Sultana disaster from Maj. Gen. Dana, Maj. Gen. Cadwallader, Bvt. Brig. Gen. Hoffman, Brig. Gen. Holt, Acting Ensign James E. Berry, Maj. Gen. Wasburn, and others. See especially charges against Captain Speed.  (Series 1 - Volume 48 (Part I), Official Records, 210-226)

See History Detectives episode on the Sultana - Civil War Sabotage