Texas: In the Forefront of Recreation

by Jonah Begone

Have you ever been to the San Jacinto battlefield site near Houston, Texas? It's an interesting place - and utterly unlike most of the Civil War sites you'll visit. But, first of all, let's have some background: San Jacinto is where the Texas Revolution ended. On April 21, 1836 Sam Houston and about 800 Texans fought General Santa Anna and about 1200 Mexicans. Ol' Sam crept up on the Mexicans while they were taking a late afternoon siesta (Santa Anna didn't bother with pickets, despite the fact that the Texans were only about a mile away), and surprised 'em right proper. The battle - which lasted only about 20 minutes! - turned into a rout. More correctly, a massacre. For the next hour, enraged Texans, seeking revenge for the fall of the Alamo and the massacre at Goliad, killed, maimed and wounded hundreds of Mexicans. The final tally was something like Texans: 7 dead and wounded, Mexicans: 600 dead and wounded. Houston also captured Santa Anna, and directed him to send the other Mexican forces in Texas packing back to Mexico, which he did. Houston thus won independence for Texas.

If you're in favor of restoring battlefields to their day-of-battle appearance and think the Gettysburg Battlefield Tower is an eyesore, you'd love San Jacinto. The proud Texans erected the grand daddy of all monuments at the site, sitting squarely between what was Houston's and Santa Anna's camps: A 590 foot obelisk with a 25 ton Lone Star at the top. Yeeee-haaaa! Personally, I really like the thing - it's big (if a monument could stand "tall in the saddle," this one would), bold, garish and is easily seen above the surrounding oil refinery towers. It also, as we like to say these days, "sends a message." (Namely, "Check it out - we kicked major Mexican butt here.") The base of the monument houses a terrific little Texas history museum, with the state's Confederate involvement represented by the display of a Texas colonel's Reb uniform coat. (It has Maryland buttons on it - if any of you know the story behind this, please drop the CCG a line!)

What struck me the most about this site, however, was the battlefield itself. I remember reading a preservation article in pages of an unnamed competitor to the CCG, wherein the author attempted to shame those who would desire to do something as mundane and recreational as throwing a frisbee around at a battlefield park site. The author invoked the usual words of warning and shame at the hapless uneducated Philistines: "sacred," "sacrifice," "hallowed," etc. Indeed, it must be admitted that the originator of this sentiment was none other than Honest Abe at Gettysburg. However, Texans apparently don't buy into this. (Not at San Jacinto, anyway. I suspect the situation may be different at the Alamo!) There, in and amongst the woods where Mexicans were slaughtered by vengeful Texans, were picnic benches, barbeque grills and other creature comforts. ("Yup - this here is where it happened! Mebee one of Santa Anna's men wuz shot in the head rat where y'all are eatin' those fries! Pass me a beer, wouldya Ray?") Any sensitivity to beaten Mexicans present? No, not a trace. I don't know how on earth Texas has escaped the wave of political correctness sweeping over this country, but God bless 'em!

Even better, the USS Texas is parked nearby. That's right - a battleship on a battlefield. Some people would say this is farby. I claim it's an added attraction, and gives the World War I Naval reenactors in the area someplace to meet.

My personal feeling is that battlefield parks are first and foremost for the living (and especially for families) and that reenacting is primarily recreational. Yes, I know this flies in the face of what many forebear-honorers in THE HOBBY feel, but hey, I'll write what I will, sign the thing with my protective nom de plume and let the chips fall where they may! (Heh heh.)

I remember taking part at a particularly blubbery battlefield monument commemorative at Gettysburg once. The senior faux NCO was reading an account of the original regiment during the battle, and was weeping openly. His wife and child, who was rather cute and precocious, by the way, were standing by, bored. (I've come to the conclusion that monument commemoratives are rites only particularly meaningful to the tubby white males who schedule these things year after year.) After about 15 minutes of such fare, the kid wandered off and was walking innocently around the monument. The unit commander - an especially pompous martial buffoon, and, significantly, not a parent - stared thunderbolts at the kid and made gruff, throat-clearing noises. Realizing that somebody's needs weren't being met, the Mom walked over and led the kid away from the monument. Ten minutes of sanguine sentimentality later she took the increasingly fidgety child into the car and fed him some juice. (This incident formed the basis for part of a little story of mine.)

I was angry and insulted. Now, I don't know what Private Billy Yank was thinking, gazing down at the scene from his celestial vantage point, but I know what I would have thought in his place. It would have been along the lines of "Hey! Cut the kid some slack and lighten up! And while you're at it, find something important to do!" Really, I think the last thing dead Civil War veterans care about is how we commemorate the battles they fought in. (They unselfishly fought for their beliefs while they were alive - why assume they've turned self-involved and zealous since then?) I bet those honored forebears we yak about so righteously are a lot more concerned about how we're dealing with 1) Teenage pregnancy and sexual promiscuity, 2) Crime, 3) Declining academic scores, 4) The decline of religion in American life, 5) The Federal deficit, 6) The "entangling foreign alliances" George Washington warned about in his last speech, 7) Americans willing to sue anyone, anytime for the most trivial of causes, 8) The erosion of Constitutional rights, 9) Corrupt politicians, and last but certainly not least 10) The dissolution of the family as the basic building block of American society. (You disagree? OK, put on your best first person. You're a Victorian. Now what's your agenda?)

Ask your veteran father or grandfather about how interested they are in their seam threads, uniform wool weave and color or accouterments. Not very interested, I bet. Now ask 'em about what kind of society they'd like their children and grandchildren to inherit. I bet you get a different level of interest entirely.

The Texans have it right. Sure, remember the past, remember the battles, remember the bloodshed. After all, those who forget the past are destined to reenact it. But get out with the family and have fun. Avoid being a single-issue (preservation) voter. Put your time and energy into the things that really matter and stop losing sleep over what kind of placket your sack coat should have. Reenacting is first and foremost a hobby, not a God-given mission to educate America. If you want to fight battles and make Sam Houston, Abe Lincoln or Robert E. Lee proud of you, vote and write letters to your Congressmen.