Project Canterbury

Alexander Gregg, First Bishop of Texas

By His Son, the Late Wilson Gregg

Edited and Extended by the Reverend Arthur Howard Noll.

Sewanee, Tennesee: The University Press, 1912.

Chapter VIII. The Bishop in Reconstruction Times.

THE collapse of the Confederacy, in the early months of 1865, presented a number of questions for the Bishop of Texas to settle in his own mind and without any precedents to follow. One was in regard to his own duty as a citizen. He had been firm in his political convictions and outspoken and fearless in the expression of his opinions throughout the war. He had been at all times a prominent partisan for the cause of secession and the Confederacy, and as active a partisan as was consistent with his sacred calling. He had furthermore made sacrifices, as we have seen for the cause. But now that the cause was lost and the Confederacy had come to an end, why should he not return to his allegiance to the United States government? After consultation with his friend, Judge Gray, and other wise and influential men in Texas, he concluded that it would be best for his work and serve as an example to others who were desirous that public affairs should speedily resume the normal condition, for him to take the oath of allegiance, and this he was the first to do in Austin. His action was criticised by extremists on both sides, but [86/87] after matters quieted down and could be considered with calmness and without the heat of passion, it was regarded as wise and in the end it had the desired effect. [A certified copy of the oath was long preserved in the possession of the author and showed the date of the oath to have been August 4, 1865. It will be noted that the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy was the last to surrender (see the editor's "Life of General Kirby-Smith"), and the resumption of normal conditions in Texas was much retarded. The author relates that the clerk administering the oath of allegiance received from the Bishop the customary fee, one dollar, in silver. This he gave to his wife, who was a devoted member of St. David's Church. She placed it in the alms basin at church the following Sunday. In due time, in the payment of the parish expenses, it passed to the sexton. When its history became known and its identity was established, a premium was placed upon it, and there was a competition among the members of the parish for its possession. The successful bidder for it was for a long time accustomed to exhibit it as a coin with an interesting history.]

Another question arose as to the relations of the Bishop and his Diocese to the Church in the United States. The reason for a separate ecclesiastical organization in the Southern States no longer existed after the collapse of the Confederacy. As the nation upon which it had built its political hopes had fallen, where was the national Church? The concrete question for the Southern Bishops and their Dioceses to decide was: Should they return singly and individually to the Church in the United States, or [87/88] should the compact with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States, into which they had entered at Columbia, S. C., in 1861, be held sacred until dissolved by the formal action of the General Council of that Church? Some of the Southern Bishops "claimed that the dissolution of the Confederacy carried with it of necessity the dissolution of the Southern Church and rendered formal action (on the part of the General Council) unnecessary, perhaps impossible." ["Richard Hooker Wilmer, Second Bishop of Alabama." A biography. By Walter C. Whitaker. p. 151.] The greater number held another view, however.

This question the Bishop of Texas decided more promptly than he did the other. It had already been noted that the Diocese of Texas, although formally recognizing herself as an integral part of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States, was practically and of necessity from the nature of the case, an independent Diocese, quite as independent of the Church in the Confederacy as of that in the United States. At the Diocesan Convention in June, 1865, held in Houston, it was resolved to resume relations with the Church in the United States; the Bishop was requested to take measures to procure the formal action of the General Council of the Church in the Confederate States at any special meeting of that [88/89] Council; and deputies were elected to the General Convention of the Church in the United States to be held the following October. It is illustrative of the liberal spirit which prevailed in this Convention, held at a time when political feeling ran high in Texas, that the Rev. Mr. Gillette, the controversialist, was one of the deputies elected, though the majority of the Convention were not in harmony with him in his attitude of opposition to the Bishop, and were fully aware of his intention to bring the matters of the controversy before the General Convention.

The Bishop, however, was unable to attend the General Convention. As it was a question in the minds of most of the Southern Bishops what reception they would meet with from their Northern brethren in the House of Bishops, he may not have cared to go there. At all events, in September he set out on his circuit of fall visitations, and after travelling more than thirteen hundred miles, mostly by carriage or stage coach or ambulance (for the railroads had not advanced any since 186o), he returned to San Antonio, in December. Meanwhile the General Convention had met and the reunion of the Southern Dioceses with the Church in the United States was amicably effected. The General Council of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States had also met in Augusta, Georgia, pursuant to [89/90] adjournment, and formally dissolved, and each Diocese was free to withdraw from the conciliar compact, as Texas had already done.

The war had impoverished the Bishop, and, the funds of the Diocese having been invested in Confederate securities, the Diocese also. On the first of January, 1866, the Bishop set out for the North, "to raise funds for Church educational purposes in San Antonio and to aid the Church in other departments of labor." He was received most cordially by the Bishop of New York, by other Bishops and by the clergy and laity whom he met, and every facility was extended for the prosecution of his work. He recorded in his journal that his visit was marked by many acts of Christian kindness and affection. The Domestic Committee of the Board of Missions, at his request, doubled the amount of the appropriation made to the Diocese of Texas. But the appropriation, even thus increased was inadequate to accomplish what the Bishop greatly desired, which was to increase the corps of permanent clergymen in the Diocese and to make such provision for them that they would not be diverted to other pursuits. He succeeded in securing funds also for the establishment of a school for boys, to be located at San Antonio, which city gave promise of becoming a very important point, and was then dominated by the Roman Catholics, being a See [90/91] City. It was that he might make it a strategic point in the upbuilding of the Church, that he had been influenced in part to make that city his residence.

In one respect his mission to the North had failed, and this was the cause of serious disappointment to him. The emancipation of the slaves and the change in the economic condition of the negroes, had in no way abated his interest in their spiritual welfare. He foresaw at once that unless the Church acted immediately in the matter, that the "Church's Duty to the Negro" would in time be presented as a very serious problem. He was surprised that he was unable to secure aid for this branch of his work in the quarter where it would naturally be expected that there was both the ability and the willingness to aid. But it seems that the strong appeal which the work among the negroes now makes to the philanthropists of the North was a much later phase of our ecclesiastical economics, and the anti-slavery sentiment of the North had been satisfied by the emancipation of the slaves and was not disposed to observe that emancipation added to the white man's burden of responsibility. And so it came about, after the lapse of a generation, that it began to be learned by those who gave the closest attention to the matter, that through the institution of slavery the Church had accomplished more for the physical, moral and spiritual [91/92] upbuilding of the Africans than was possible under the free system.

The Bishop expressed his views about the work among the negroes very clearly in his address before the Diocesan Convention in 1866:--

"Among the heavy responsibilties devolving upon the Church at the present time," he says, "is that connected with the spiritual welfare of the Freedmen. I hoped, during my recent absence from the Diocese, though disappointed in doing so, to raise funds to assist in inaugurating the work, for our people are too much prostrated now to do much of themselves. My thoughts have been anxiously given to the subject, and I can only say, that I will heartily cooperate with the Freedmen's Aid Commission, and with you, my brethren of the clergy and laity, in any measures for their education and religious welfare that may seem to give promise of success.

"We should provide schools, as far as possible, under direction of the clergy in their parishes, and when that is impracticable, committed to pious laymen of the Church. Did we have sufficient accommodation in our churches to admit of it, I would earnestly recommend that a due proportion of the sittings, in every case, should be appropriated to the Freedmen. In the general absence, however, of such accommodation--a state of things on every hand too painfully apparent--separate provision should be made for them. Though the principle of separation, further than is necessary or becoming, should not have [92/93] place. If encouraged, it will be found the fruitful source of an antagonism which can but prove disastrous in the end. It was objectionable, in my opinion, under the system which formerly prevailed, and will be found not much less so now. No general or unbending rules, or principle of action, however, can be laid down here as applicable to every case alike. We must, with a wise foresight and prudent discrimination, provide for cases as they arise, and do the best we can for them and for ourselves, under the circumstances surrounding us. In any event, we can never cease to feel the deepest interest in this large class of our population, to remember how much is due to them, how faithful they have been upon the whole through extraordinary changes, and how much their happiness and future advancement will depend upon the course toward them which the white race in the South shall determine to pursue...."

Though Texas, from its geographical position and sparse population, had escaped much of the devastation incident to the Civil War and visited upon other sections of the South, it did not escape the baleful effects of the "reconstruction period" and of the "carpet-bag rule" which succeeded, and which greatly retarded the recuperation of the whole South after the war. And Bishop Gregg, probably because of his prominent position, of his acknowledged influence with the better class of Texans, and of his pronounced political convictions and fearlessness in expressing [93/94] them, was made the object of bitter attacks in the public press of Texas in the summer of 1865; and these attacks were augmented and published in Northern papers about the time of his return from his Northern visit in April, 1866. The attack in that case took the form of a purported communication from the "Texas State Central Committee of Colored Men," though it is well known that such elaborated organization as this implied was something absolutely impossible among the Southern negroes at that time; and the whole communication bore evidence of emanating from the political adventurers who were then preying upon the South. The Bishop was accused of having mistreated his former slaves, of disloyalty to the Federal Government and of designing to misapply the funds contributed at the North for educational purposes in San Antonio.

The Bishop fully understood that the purpose of the attack was to assist in retarding the restoration of Texas to the Union and to self-government, so he felt it due to the people of Texas, as well as to the Church, that he should do what he could to counteract the ill effects of the attack. And at the request of others he departed from the rule he had endeavored to observe in the past, of not obtruding himself in any personal connection upon the public, and wrote to the New York Tribune a letter, of which the following [94/95] portions are quoted as showing the spirit of the time and also the character of the Bishop:--

.... Had such defamatory articles been published only in Texas where I am well known, or confined to Austin, where I resided from my first arrival in the state until last August, it would be unnecessary for me to utter a word in my defence, or to notice them in any manner whatever. Their real source and manifest object are too well understood here to excite any other than a feeling of indignant reprobation. They are only in keeping with, and probably emanated from, the author of certain other articles published last summer in one of the public prints of the state, among the most virulent and detractive that have ever appeared against any individual whose position has brought him prominently before the public. They then, as now, only ventured to assail me from a covert of darkness. But giving in this instance a wider scope to the effort to assail and injure, the design evidently is to disseminate the calumny as widely as possible at the North, not only with evil purposes affecting myself, but the South generally, as to that policy of restoration which the Chief Magistrate of the country has wisely adopted and is now endeavoring, against almost overwhelming opposition, to carry out. It is for this reason, chiefly, that I feel constrained to address these words of remonstrance and warning to the people of the North. We are literally at the mercy of those who, animated by feelings of personal or political animosity, or of fanatical zeal, are [95/96] sending incorrect and exaggerated statements as to the actual condition of things existing among us, or making inflammatory appeals for party purposes and their own advancement in the end.

"Those who were honest and sincere in their devotion to the South in the late struggle, and have as honestly and sincerely acquiesced in the results of that struggle, are as true to the country now, and are to be trusted. True men in any condition will strive to do their part faithfully and fearlessly. Hence in accepting the situation they expect to abide by its just and legitimate consequences. And as one among these consequences I do not hesitate to say, all statements to the contrary notwithstanding, that the great mass of our people are disposed to act justly and kindly toward the Freedmen. Such is my calm and deliberate conviction, and in this matter my opportunities for observation for a year past have been as extended, perhaps, as those of any individual in the state. The Freedmen are not the real originators of misstatements on this subject. They are only unsuspecting instruments in the hands of designing persons. Their conduct during the last few years has been worthy of all praise, and, considering the circumstances of their present condition, is most commendable now. If suffered to act as their own impulses would prompt them to do under the enlightening and elevating influences which should be brought to bear upon them in ever increasing measure hereafter, their condition and prospects would be correspondingly improved. There ought not to be any conflict of races. There [96/97] is no necessity for that antagonism, the seeds of which, it is to be feared, are now being industriously and deeply planted in their breasts, and the result of which, if fully developed, will by every lover of his race and country be forever deplored.

"Not a little has been said as to my course during the war. My position then as now is well understood here, and not at all unknown to my brethren of the North. They extended to me, during my recent visit, a kind and cordial welcome; and as my character in this behalf needs no vindication here, so it is safe in the hands of those good men there who knew how to appreciate the motives that animated me in the course I thought it my duty to pursue.

"My conduct to my former servants has also been made the topic of the most bitter and defamatory remarks. Were I simply to speak of the falsehood of such charges, it would be saying little under the circumstances. The malignity which prompted them is most to be condemned. It is but a lamentable instance of the recklessness with which character is now assailed and one of the saddest features of the moral degeneracy of the times.

"I am also charged with a design to misapply a portion at least of the funds which were generously contributed at the North for certain Church educational purposes in this city. The presumptuousness of such a charge and the bold temerity of the attempt to interfere in a matter like this, only need public mention to be exposed.

"What I have written has been in sorrow and with [97/98] sad forebodings of what is before us as a people, should the public sentiment of the country at large, by timely rebuke and universal reprobation, fail to correct the evil and put a stop to the disorganizing and destructive courses which many seem determined to pursue. Our liberties and the very life of the constitution are indeed in imminent danger, if the careless and licentious are permitted to rule."

The former servants of the Bishop indignantly repudiated all connection with the slander,--all but two, who admitted to the others that they were plied with liquor and then used as the tools of the real perpetrators. Cato, the faithful driver, wrote a letter to the Bishop full of the affectionate spirit which characterized the emancipated slaves for their former masters.

Two years later, the organs of the "carpet-bag" government revived and published stories of the "Gillette persecution" and of the Bishop's mistreatment of the negroes and of the misappropriation of funds collected in the North, and added to it the charge that he had forced a young clergyman from the state because of his political opinions. The Bishop himself paid no attention to these attacks but friends answered them fully in the public press. These attacks illustrate some of the difficulties with which the first Bishop of Texas had to contend.

[99] The Bishop was at home from his northern trip but a few days before leaving on his southern series of visitations, upon which he was absent until the latter part of June. That summer the cholera became epidemic in San Antonio. The conditions in the town were such that its ravages could not be stayed, and it was deemed best that the Bishop's family leave for a time. The marriage of the eldest daughter to Mr. Robert Cochran, of Virginia, which was to have taken place the next fall, was hastened, and the bridal party and the family set out together by private conveyance for a place of refuge. The groom succumbed to the dread disease a few hours after the marriage and died the next day. His body was brought back to San Antonio for burial. The family, therefore, preferred to remain in San Antonio rather than to risk illness at some place where medical attendance would not be available. Only two members of the family escaped the disease. Mrs. Cochran remained a widow until her death in 1895.

The Bishop was constantly engaged in ministering to others and providentially escaped the disease until the epidemic had apparently run its course, and then in September started on his "fall visitations." While on the road between Austin and Belton the symptoms of the dread disease manifested themselves, but with his experience in nursing cholera, he knew [99/100] what treatment to apply and found relief. The following day he had a recurrence of the symptoms which again yielded to treatment. Writing to his family, he expressed his dread of being abandoned on the road, had he succumbed to the disease, and yet how he was constrained to proceed in the line of duty.

During his visitation in Austin, he received repeated visits from his old servants who came to assure him of their affection and of their disgust at the conduct of the two renegades. He visited the Old Mammy, Jule, who was sick, and wrote with deep feeling of the many marks of affection the negroes showed him.

The fall visitations lasted until the latter part of December. The Bishop spent the winter in charge of St. Mark's Church, San Antonio, in the absence of the rector. He made his spring visitations in the southern part of the state from March until June, 1867, and presided over the Diocesan Convention in Brenham. It was with considerable gratification that he summed up in his address to the Convention, the result of his year's work. The clergy in his Diocese now numbered twenty. The committee on the State of the Church reported that in no previous year were there such indications of life and growth. The number of baptisms was twice that of the previous year; confirmations were nearly three times as many. The [100/101] efforts for the erection of church buildings and the amounts expended upon the completion and improvement of churches were far in advance of any former period. The Sunday Schools were never before so full and flourishing.

Project Canterbury