Yelling over the rebels’ mail­man

Should Con­fed­er­ate post­mas­ter still have places named for him?

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT - Ken Her­man Com­men­tary

Once again, and with un­prece­dented fer­vor, we’re wrestling with what to do about stat­ues of and things named for Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers. That means we’re again talk­ing about Texan John H. Rea­gan, who’s al­ways iden­ti­fied as post­mas­ter gen­eral of the Con­fed­er­acy.

It’s a peren­nial ref­er­ence that of­ten makes you say, “Wait a minute, the Con­fed­er­acy had a postal ser­vice?” And was there a Re­bEx with which it had to com­pete in the lu­cra­tive overnight de­liv­ery biz? (OK, you prob­a­bly haven’t asked that sec­ond ques­tion.)

Yes, the Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica had a postal ser­vice. How else do you think folks com­mu­ni­cated back then?

So what do we do about a guy whose job was to get the mail de­liv­ered in a na­tion that went to war with the United States? Does Rea­gan ( John, not Ron) de­serve eter­nal con­dem­na­tion for down-South de­liv­ery of the mail, even if he served our beloved state pre- and post-war?

The Univer­sity of Texas re­cently re­moved a cam­pus statue of Rea­gan. (And how cool would it have been if UT had hired folks dressed as Con­fed­er­ate postal work­ers to cart off the statue?) Austin school of­fi­cials may de­bate tak­ing Rea­gan’s name off a lo­cal high school. (Here’s an idea sure not to re­ceive uni­ver­sal lo­cal sup­port: How about if, to save money on let­ter­head and stuff, the Austin school dis­trict just changes John H. Rea­gan High

School to Ron­ald Rea­gan High School?) And state of­fi­cials might have to deal with what to do about the John H. Rea­gan State Of­fice Build­ing.

Gnarly sit­u­a­tions all. So, as we ap­proach what would have been Rea­gan’s 199th birth­day on Oct. 8, let’s take yet an­other look at the man known to many as noth­ing more than the post­mas­ter gen­eral of the Con­fed­er­acy.

Prior to the Civil War, Rea­gan, a Ten­nessee na­tive, had served as a con­gress­man from Texas. When the war broke out, Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis put him in charge of the Con­fed­er­ate postal ser­vice.

On May 24, 1861, The New York Times pub­lished what it said was “CSA Post­mas­ter Rea­gan’s procla­ma­tion (giv­ing) no­tice to the Fed­eral Govern­ment to stop car­ry­ing mails for the rebels.”

The U.S. Postal Ser­vice notes on its web­site that Rea­gan ran a fairly de­cent op­er­a­tion, con­sid­er­ing. We’re told that on March 6, 1861, U.S. Post­mas­ter Gen­eral Mont­gomery Blair (great-grand­fa­ther of the late ac­tor Mont­gomery Clift) ordered the U.S. Post Of­fice to cut off mail ser­vice in the South as of May 31, 1861.

“Although an able ad­min­is­tra­tor headed the Con­fed­er­ate Post Of­fice De­part­ment, its mail ser­vice was con­tin­u­ously in­ter­rupted,” the U.S. Postal Ser­vice web­site says.

“Through a com­bi­na­tion of pay and per­son­nel cuts, postage rate in­creases and stream­lin­ing of mail routes, Rea­gan elim­i­nated the postal deficit that ex­isted in the South.

“But block­ades and the in­vad­ing North­ern army, as well as a grow­ing scarcity of postage stamps, se­verely ham­pered postal op­er­a­tions,” it says.

The Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Postal Mu­seum tells us Rea­gan placed 8,535 of the na­tion’s 28,586 post of­fices un­der his con­trol. “Rea­gan tried to bring not just em­ploy­ees from the Fed­eral sys­tem into his, but also all that they could bring in the way of maps, re­ports, forms and plans that would build and strengthen the new ser­vice,” the mu­seum says.

Even­tu­ally, the Con­fed­er­ate postal ser­vice is­sued its own stamps. The first fea­tured Davis, which sounds like the equiv­a­lent of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump putting his vis­age on a postal stamp, some­thing I don’t think will hap­pen un­til late next year.

Fed­eral mail ser­vice re­sumed in the South at Civil War’s end, a mile­stone that didn’t go so well for Rea­gan.

“John Rea­gan, trav­el­ing with Jef­fer­son Davis, was ar­rested on May 8, 1865, and im­pris­oned at Fort War­ren in Bos­ton Har­bor,” the postal mu­seum re­counts.

Con­ver­sa­tion that prob­a­bly didn’t hap­pen:

Davis: “Well, John H., that didn’t turn out so well.”

Rea­gan: “No, Jeff, it didn’t. But I thought you looked great on the stamp.”

Rea­gan spent 22 weeks in soli­tary con­fine­ment and was par­doned and re­leased from pri­son two years later, the postal mu­seum tells us, adding: “He re­turned to his home state of Texas. He even­tu­ally made it back to Congress, where he be­came chair­man of the Com­mit­tee on Post Of­fices and Post Roads.”

The Texas State His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion’s “Hand­book of Texas” (I’ll tell you in a minute why the as­so­ci­a­tion might be a bit bi­ased pro-Rea­gan) says Rea­gan wrote “an open com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the peo­ple of Texas in which he ap­pealed to them, as con­quered peo­ple, to rec­og­nize the author­ity of the United States, re­nounce im­me­di­ately both se­ces­sion and slav­ery, and, if com­manded by the fed­eral govern­ment, ex­tend the ‘elec­tive fran­chise’ to for­mer slaves.”

Rea­gan later was a del­e­gate to the 1875 Texas Con­sti­tu­tional Con­ven­tion that came up with the Con­sti­tu­tion un­der which we still op­er­ate. He was elected (back then it was by leg­is­la­tors, not reg­u­lar peo­ple) to the U.S. Se­nate in Jan­uary 1887, but left that post to be­come first chair­man of the Texas Rail­road Com­mis­sion in 1891.

In 1897, he was a founder of the Texas State His­tor­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion. He died in 1905 and is buried in Pales­tine in East Texas.

So, as we mull Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers, what are we to make of a guy who served Texas prior to and after the war, and, dur­ing it, tried to get the mail de­liv­ered? Here’s what Rich Hey­man, an ur­ban stud­ies lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Texas, says of what we are to make of Rea­gan, about whom Hey­man wrote in this news­pa­per in 2015.

Hey­man de­nounced what he called “the myth” that Rea­gan “was ac­tu­ally a moder­ate who after the Civil War en­cour­aged his fel­low Tex­ans to co­op­er­ate with the fed­eral govern­ment, re­nounced slav­ery and se­ces­sion, and ad­vo­cated al­low­ing freed slaves to vote.”

“This is a mis­in­formed view of Rea­gan,” Hey­man wrote. “He was an un­re­pen­tant de­fender of se­ces­sion and white supremacy un­til the end of his life.”

Hey­man noted that in a mem­oir, Rea­gan wrote that the “el­e­va­tion of the slaves to all the dig­ni­ties of cit­i­zen­ship” was an “evil” to be pre­vented.

“Rea­gan, while an in­flu­en­tial politi­cian in 19th and 20th cen­tury Texas, is not wor­thy of the honor of hav­ing an ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion named for him,” Hey­man wrote. “He does not rep­re­sent the val­ues or ideals of Austin, the Austin In­de­pen­dent School Dis­trict or the state of Texas.”

Sounds like there’s much to mull as we de­cide whether we’re still go­ing to have any­thing around here named for Rea­gan. To some, much about the Con­fed­er­acy re­mains a gray area. I look for­ward to the de­bate.

The de­ci­sion about the for­mer Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica post­mas­ter gen­eral is an im­por­tant one, not one that should just be mailed in as we de­cide if the name should be can­celed and stamped out. It could be time to think out­side the en­ve­lope.

Yes, you are correct. I should have stopped just be­fore that para­graph. It’s just a pro­cliv­ity I have that I hope won’t be passed on to my de­scen­dants via heir mail.

kher­man@states­man.com; 512-445-3907

Rea­gan

STEPHEN SPILL­MAN / FOR AMERICAN-STATES­MAN

A statue of Con­fed­er­ate Post­mas­ter John H. Rea­gan is re­moved from the South Mall at UT last month. Rea­gan served as a mem­ber of Congress from Texas be­fore and after the Civil War.

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