Remembering People, Reclaiming Ideals

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly. Patriotic garlands still hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in small-town breezes.

And yet, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, movie-going, and the first road trip of the season.

As a result, the history and significance of Memorial Day is both more profound and more complex than most Americans realize.

After the end of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives, and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers.

Thirty years later, American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote of Decoration Day for the May 28, 1898 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

At that time the outward signs of that flaming and bitter strife were still fresh and new. The bosom of nature, ploughed by the iron of war, had not yet healed. Everywhere were smoke-blackened and shattered shells, each, one time the patriarchal mansion of some great slave-holding planter.
Woods and glades were thinned out by the storm of shot and shell that had torn through them with iron hail. In one place or another long rows – rank upon rank – of shallow mounds stretched up hill, along the level, through the woodlands: battalions of graves hardly yet covered with the thin young grass.
Upon a dozen battle-fields were great cemeteries, each consecrated with its baptism of blood, and there North and South lay in stillness, soldiers stretched side by side, in a fraternity never to be broken, because the Angel Israfel himself had set his seal of silence upon it all.
“In Memoriam” ~ Sophie Bertha Steel
It was to these battle cemeteries, greater or lesser, that the women of the neighboring country brought their offering of flowers.
There is something very full of pathos in the thought of those poor Southern women who had suffered so much and who had endured to such a bitter end – of those patient women of grief bringing their harmless offerings of flowers to these stern and furrowed fields of death, there to lay the fading things upon the bosom of each mound.
The North, it is said, was remembered at those times as well as the South. One cannot but hope this may be true, for it is beautiful to think of one woman of sorrows in the South reaching out an unseen hand to some other and unknown woman of sorrows in the faraway North.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued orders that on May 30th of that year all posts should decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers – both North and South – thus formalizing what had become customary.

After World War I, the focus of the day was expanded to honor all those who had died in all American wars, and Memorial Day began to replace Decoration Day as a term of reference. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.

By the years of my midwestern childhood, the rituals of Decoration Day had become firmly established. On the weekend preceding the holiday, we traveled to family cemeteries to clear away grass from the stones, trim the bushes, and plant fresh flowers. The town’s Boy Scouts, 4-H members, and church youth groups helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars place flags on veterans’ graves, guaranteeing that all who served would be remembered.

In our classrooms, lessons included the history of significant battles, or Presidential speeches. We made garlands of red, white and blue pennants containing patriotic images – the Tree of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, or Lady Liberty’s torch – and posters containing words we barely apprehended: Freedom. Peace. Courage.

Always, there was a time to share personal memories. With World War II barely a decade past, tokens of that time were common: rationing coupons for gas and sugar; ribbons and medals awarded for bravery; photographs and correspondence from the front.

Once, I took a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific and never came home. His letters somehow disappeared into the great maw of time, but I have my father’s words to his brother:

We got your letter today and were sure glad to hear from you and that you are OK. It must be something over there. We kind of figured you must be up in the front, as we had not heard of you for some time…
Saw in the paper that the kid I used to ask you about was wounded over in Leyte. From that I figured you must be in there, too, as he is in the same division as you. Things must be bad there in more ways than one. From the papers it sounds like you are doing OK, though. Sure hope so…
Had you heard that Don was wounded? He was hit by a piece of flak. I guess his flying days are over from what he says. Sure hope you get through this campaign without injury. It sure must be nerve-wracking to fight all day and stand guard all night…
Take care of yourself and be careful. Hope this thing is over and you get home pretty soon. Write when you can…

Once school was dismissed on Friday, the routine never varied. Saturday morning was set aside for the parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to my grandparents’ home. On Sunday morning we went to church and listened as a deacon read the list of congregational members killed or missing in action. We sang hymns acknowledging the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.

Memorial Day itself meant a return trip to the cemetery, where flag ceremonies and speeches provided their own sort of comfort, and gave context to the flowers decorating the graves.

On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church, delivered some typical remarks. After members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marched with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, they heard these words, later reported in The Brooklyn Eagle.

“Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America? Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic.
The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God-given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.
Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor.”

Always, Decoration Day closed with a concert by our City Band. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs: to sing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” to clap and toe-tap our way through Sousa marches, and to smile with tolerance at enthusiastic children singing “God Bless America.”

Inevitably, the program concluded with The Battle Hymn of Republic. Sometimes, there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still can bring me to tears. It recalls a time, not so long ago and perhaps still recoverable, when people of every political stripe, of wildly varying economic status, of every faith or of no faith at all, were willing to set aside differences in order to stand together in reverence before the majesty and mystery of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As we come to our own Memorial Day celebrations, as we honor those whose graves we decorate and cherish the memory of their service on our behalf, perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honestly, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.

If we choose such active remembrance, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain; that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and, in the words of Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

 

Battle Hymn of the Republic, arr. Wilhousky

Comments always are welcome.  Illustrations come from a collection of family postcards.

This Merry Month of Maying

Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly.
Such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling—it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener.

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Sleeping in the Pines

Outside Anderson, Texas ~ Don Haynes

Merle Haggard. Glenn Frey, of The Eagles. Paul Kantner, co-founder of Jefferson Airplane. Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Maurice White.  I knew them all through their music, and now all are gone. Only David Bowie, another musician already lost in 2016, bore no association for me. I knew his Ziggy Stardust persona, and knew the term “glam-rock,” but on the day of his death, I couldn’t have named one of his songs.

Oblivious though I may have been to Bowie’s career, his death reminded me of my similar response to Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide. At the time of Cobain’s death, I knew a musical movement called Grunge was emerging in the Pacific Northwest, represented by groups like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and Alice in Chains, but I’d missed the ascendance of Nivana, and certainly didn’t know Cobain was their frontman.  (more…)

Rattlesnakes, Cactus, and Laurel: The Heritage of Loreto

Our Lady of Loreto Chapel ~ watercolor by architect Raiford Stripling

Integral to the life of Presidio La Bahía, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto was constructed in 1749 as a place of worship for Spanish soldiers at the fort, and settlers in the surrounding town.

There were interruptions in the chapel’s religious life, to be sure: the imprisonment of Fannin and his men within its walls after the Battle of Coleto Creek; the massacre of those same men in its courtyard; and the signing of the Goliad Declaration of Independence on its altar on December 20, 1835. Although the Goliad Declaration came two days before Stephen F. Austin called for independence at Velasco, and preceded the Texas Declaration of Independence by seventy-three days, the signing was significant, and moved the Texas Revolution forward.

After the formation of the Republic of Texas in 1836, other parts of the Presidio began a slow decline, but the chapel remained intact and, with only a few more interruptions, continued to serve its original purpose. Today, weekly masses still are celebrated, and couples often exchange wedding vows at its altar.

Historically speaking, some Presidio weddings are more remarkable than others. When Roxanne Caye Gayle married Aaron Lee Ochoa in the chapel in 2010, she did so as a seventh-generation descendant of Don Carlos de la Garza, a Mexican rancher who was born at the Presidio in 1807, was baptized in its chapel, and married his wife Tomasita there in 1829.
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A Moveable Fort

Presidio la Bahia, Goliad, Texas ~ 1910

The woman couldn’t have been more pleasant, or more accommodating. On the other hand, it was our fourth conversation, and it felt as though we were becoming friends. It wouldn’t have surprised me if we’d begun swapping recipes.

The first time we talked, it was because of a travel tip I’d discovered online after a post-Christmas trip from San Antonio to Port O’Connor. Alamo Plaza and the River Walk had been more frantic than festive, and I was in the mood to dawdle: taking time to stop in Panna Maria, the oldest Silesian settlement in the United States, and, farther south, at Goliad’s Presidio La Bahía and Mission Espíritu Santo, where I first saw an Agave americana decorated as a Christmas tree.

By the time I reached Goliad, the day had turned cloudy and damp, with occasional fits of rain. Driving up the hill for a desultory look around the fort, I decided against going inside. Previous visits had taught me something of its history and its importance for Texas generally, so I pulled away: thinking, as I did, that a springtime trip would be nice, especially after the flowers began to bloom.

On that day after Christmas, what I didn’t know — what I couldn’t have known — was that my next visit would take place sooner, be far different, and provide significantly more enjoyment than I ever could have imagined.

Early in January, while roaming the wilds of the internet, I stumbled across a post describing a family’s encounter with ghosts during an overnight stay at Presidio La Bahía. “Surely,” I thought, “you can’t just book a room there. It’s a fort, not the Hilton.”  As it turned out, I was only half right; the Quarters at the Presidio had multiple ratings on TripAdvisor. After pondering for a day, I called La Bahía.

Seemingly eager to chat, the volunteer who answered my call provided some details. The portion of the fort available for guests originally had served as the Presidio’s officers’ quarters. During a major restoration in the 1960s, builders incorporated a two-bedroom apartment to serve as a rectory for the chapel’s priests. Now, with the space no longer used by the diocese, anyone could rent the suite.

When I asked about cost, the figure quoted for a night was a bit pricey, but no more so than for hotels on San Antonio’s River Walk, or any number of high-end Texas resorts. “Why not?” I thought. “It’s a fort, not the Hilton.” Overcome by the thought of hobnobbing with the spirits of Colonel Fannin and his massacred men, I booked two nights in March, at the very beginning of wildflower season. Then, things became complicated.

Not long after I made my reservation, cataract surgery was added to my to-do list. Since the surgery dates conflicted with my time at the Presidio, I called to explain the situation, and reschedule my visit. I happened to reach the same volunteer, and we arranged for dates that seemed well beyond any recovery period.

When pre-surgery complications required another rescheduling, she said, “No problem. The Presidio’s not going anywhere.”

After circumstances forced yet another (and final) rescheduling, I apologized for causing so much trouble. I swear if we’d been talking in person, she would have patted my hand and said, “Now, don’t you worry.” As it was, she laughed, and said, “You’d better get those eyes fixed before you come. We’d hate for you to miss anything.”

Then, she paused. “Besides,” she said, “you’ll be here in a few weeks. It took the Presidio a whole lot longer than that to get here.”

Indeed, it did. Several decades lay between the establishment of the Spanish fort and mission on Garcitas Creek and its re-establishment in Goliad: decades of events, complicated by multiple locations and confusing names.

Today, the fort is known as Presidio La Bahía, or simply La Bahía (“The Bay”), but those names have nothing to do with its current location on the San Antonio River. Constructed by the Spanish in 1720 or 1721 on the site of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s failed Fort St. Louis, the original Presidio took its name from La Bahía del Espíritu Santo: “The Bay of the Holy Spirit.” Today, we call those waters Lavaca and Matagorda bays, and know them as the home of Indianola: the hurricane-destroyed port of entry for so many mid-1800s immigrants, and just a few camels.

Across Garcitas Creek from Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo, the mission known as Nuestra Señora de la Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga was established: honoring both the Virgin Mary and Báltasar de Zúñiga, Viceroy of New Spain. People referred to the fort as Presidio La Bahía, and to the mission as La Bahía.

In short, La Bahía could refer to the bay; to the mission; to the fort; or (after its final move) to the settlement that grew up around the fort. By 1829, the confusion may have been too much, even for residents of the area. The name of the settlement was changed from La Bahía to Goliad: an anagram of the name of Father Hidalgo, the priest who initiated the Mexican fight for independence from Spain. Even so, if you travel to Goliad today, you still may hear someone refer to the town as “La Bahía.”

Goliad County Map, showing La Bahia ~ 1920

In the beginning — which is to say, in 1720 — Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, governor and captain general of the provinces of Coahuila and Texas, received a commission from Báltasar de Zúñiga to reoccupy East Texas missions and presidios abandoned during the French invasion of 1719.

Journals kept during Aguayo’s expedition chronicled construction of the first Presidio La Bahía, directly over the ruins of Fort St. Louis:

Shortly before March 16, 1722, Aguayo sent fifty of the best soldiers, selected from the battalion, under Gabriel Costales to Espíritu Santo. Because of the scarcity of horses, he himself could not go until the 16th, when with forty men, accompanied by Doctor Codallos y Eabal, Captains Thomas Zuburia,, Miguel Zilon y Portugal, Manuel de Herrera, and Pedro Oribe, he began his march for that place.
In the latter part of the journey, they came to two good-sized streams, evidently the Garcitas and Arenosa. Crossing these, the expedition turned southeast three leagues, and arrived at the ”presidio of Nuestra Señora de Loreto,” March 24, 1722.
Apparently it was considered already founded by the garrison. [On April 4, 1721, forty soldiers under the command of Captain José Domingo Ramón, had arrived at Fort St. Louis to begin preparing for the building of fortifications.]

Juan Antonio de la Peña also kept a record of the expedition. According to his account:

On the sixth of April [1722] his lordship began to draw the lines for the presidio on the site where the French, under command of M. de la Salle, had occupied it from 1684 to 1690. 
The hole in which the artillery had been buried and in which the powder had been burnt is within the lines of the new fort, and can still be seen. On opening the ditch, in order to lay the foundation of the fortification, nails, pieces of gun locks, and fragments of other things used by the French were found. The foundation for the fort is to be in the shape of an octagon.

The Spanish plan map depicted three concentric rows of buildings surrounded by a complex, sixteen point star-shaped palisade wall, a moat, four bastions, and a tower.

Nuestra Señora del Loreto Presdio de La Bahía, drawn by the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, 1722.
Courtesy Bryan (James Perry) Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

For years, historians and archaeologists debated the authenticity of the map and journal entries.

The elaborate design seemed grandiose, given the presidio’s remote location. They wondered whether the elaborate fortification actually had ever been constructed, or if the map had been simply a propaganda ruse to deceive hostile governments about Spanish strength in the area.

Finally, in 1999, after multiple field investigations and ongoing archival work, an investigation was launched at the site of the original Presidio la Bahía by the Texas Historical Commission. The details of the two-and-a-half year search are fascinating, and the results were remarkable:

Archeological work confirmed that the presidio had been built according to the elaborate plan drawn by the Marqués de Aguayo, and had been garrisoned with soldiers to guard against the return of the French.
Traces of the Karankawa were found throughout the site as well… Distribution of native artifacts strongly suggested that the Indians had not only traded with the French but lived just outside—if not within—the walls of the presidio during the time of the Spanish.
Project archeologist Jeff Durst notes that the unusual length of time spent excavating allowed for continual reassessment of findings in the field.
“We had different interpretations of what we were seeing as we went along, changing about every three weeks as we made new discoveries. We looked for the Spanish palisade wall trench for about a year before we found it. We had begun to think that the Spanish map of the presidio with the 16-sided wall was just propaganda put out at the time. Had it not been for that extra length of time we spent in the field, we might never have found it.”
Months of excavation [brought] no success, until a series of rains ironically broke both an area drought and the archeologists’ ‘dry holes.’ Moisture from the rains made subtle contrasts in the soil horizons more visible, enabling crew members to detect a dark, linear soil discoloration in one of the excavation units. 
On closer inspection, the darker area proved to be a series of post molds.  More digging revealed additional sections of the original Spanish setting trench and the discovery that the palisade had, indeed, followed the exact 16-point star shown on the map.
Aerial view of the excavation site near the end of investigations, with Garcitas Creek at the bottom.
The 16-point-star-shaped Spanish presidio has been outlined with plastic tape. (Photo courtesy THC)

Due to conflicts with local Karankawa Indians, conflicts exacerbated by the unfortunate actions of Captain Ramón, the Garcitas Greek site was abandoned in 1726. The mission and presidio were moved to a location (or locations — opinions differ) on the Guadalupe River, near present-day Victoria and Mission Valley. Finally, in 1747, the mission was moved to its current location on the north bank of the San Antonio River, and Presidio La Bahía was established on the south bank.

(Click image and scroll for a larger version and more detail)
First site of Presidio la Bahía; approximate first location of Mission Espíritu Santo
Second site of Mission Espíritu Santo
Third site of Mission Espíritu Santo; second site of Presidio la Bahía
Final site, Mission Espíritu Santo & Presidio la Bahía

By 1749, the compound included several small wooden buildings and approximately 40 simple grass huts. As the community grew, permanent stone structures took shape, including a quadrangular defensive wall, rounded bastions for mounted cannons, officers’ quarters, storehouses, workshops, an arsenal, and an impressive chapel.

Over the years, La Bahía prospered and declined; alternated between Spanish and Mexican control; saw the death of many, and the birth of the Texas Republic. In the 1850s, a single individual, Judge Pryor Lea, owned the presidio and used the chapel as a residence.

The property was returned to the Catholic Diocese in 1853, but its deterioration continued until 1963, when restoration efforts were begun under the auspices of the Kathryn Stoner O’Connor Foundation, architect Raiford Stripling, and archaeologist Roland Beard. While portions of the original presidio remained, including its beautiful chapel, a long process of discovery and evaluation was necessary to replicate what had been destroyed. Finally, on October 8, 1967, an official dedication took place. A year later, Lady Bird Johnson came to Goliad to unveil the plaque designating the Presidio as a national historic landmark.

Lady Bird Johnson and architect Raiford Stripling at the 1968 ceremonies

In 1968, what Kathryn Stoner O’Connor, Lady Bird Johnson, and Raiford Stripling didn’t know — couldn’t have known — was that, one day, guest quarters would replace officers’ quarters, and an assortment of ghost hunters, history buffs, soldiers’ descendants, and just plain folks would arrive at Presidio La Bahía to spend time, appreciate their work, and listen for the voices of the past.

After laughing over the complexities of my own journey to the fort, the friendly volunteer — as delightful in person as she’d been over the phone — gave me the key, and led me out to the parking area. Pointing north, she said, “There’s your door. The back door opens to the Quadrangle and the Chapel. If you’ve got any questions, come by before five. After that, no one will be around.” Then, she grinned. “Except you, of course.”

“Of course,” I said, and headed toward the door.

(Click image to enlarge)
to be continued…
As always, comments are welcome.
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