On a recent day trip from Houston to Austin, I had the chance to tour the Bullock Texas State History Museum. Of course, I took the opportunity to check out the exhibits on the Civil War era.
The museum is picturesquely situated between the Texas State Capital building and the University of Texas campus. It faces a wide-open mall with government buildings on either side. In true Texas fashion, a massive star sits before the main entrance, setting the stage for expectations inside.
The Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, Texas
Several floors of exhibits showcase the history of Texas. The first floor is packed with Indigenous artifacts and parts of ships used in the exploration and colonization of the Texas coast. The second floor focuses on how Mexico gained independence, with Texas as a part. It then shifts to the Texas Revolution, the Texas Republic, joining the US, and the Civil War era. The third-floor shifts into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, exploring everything from energy production to culture to life in Texas today.
Needless to say, most of my time was spent on the second floor and even though it is only one smaller part of the overall museum, the Civil War era exhibit contains some impressive displays.
The Bullock History Museum makes note that most voting Texans supported secession, but a large minority did not.
The exhibit begins with the secession crisis, and a museum placard was clear in clarifying how most Texans at the time “concluded that slavery was essential to the survival of the Texas economy” and how Abraham Lincoln’s election was seen “as a direct threat.” The museum, however, also notes that Governor Sam Houston and 13,000 Texans (about 22% of those who voted on the referendum to approve the state’s secession convention activity) opposed secession.
An impressive display of how compressed cotton bales were used as makeshift protection on converted ships.
Then commenced a standard timeline of the Civil War, with actions in Texas above a line and actions involving Texans elsewhere below. After that was the best visual experience of the Civil War exhibit, a partial life-size mockup of the Texas Maritime Department cotton-clad steamer Bayou City. One side of this mockup is one of the best displays of how compressed cotton bales were used as improvised protection on many steamers turned into makeshift warships. The other side displays a 32-pounder canon on a naval carriage aimed at a newspaper image showing the January 1, 1863, battle of Galveston where Bayou City helped disable US warships and recapture the port for the Confederacy.
The cottonclad Bayou City took part in the battle of Galveston, as showcased in this display.
After Bayou City’s display are several cases of rifles and other weapons with explanations of how Texans served on both sides of the conflict in many capacities. On the end of that display is a video playing letters and other primary accounts of wartime Texans, surrounded by dozens of images of Texans from all backgrounds. Nearby is a map of Texas showing the blockade and the border with Mexico which was used export cotton and import military equipment.
The best artifact on display from the Civil War was a barricade used by Confederate forces in the January 1863 battle of Galveston. The barricade even still has bullets lodged in it from United States forces. Seeing this alone made the trip worthwhile as barricades were often discarded and destroyed for firewood and simply are rare to find partially intact.
Musket balls are still in this barricade used in the battle of Galveston.
The end of the Civil War exhibit consists of a couple of placards about Confederate surrenders at the end of the war, the arrival of US forces in the bulk of the state, and the Juneteenth declaration by Major General Gordon Granger proclaiming the Emancipation Proclamation in effect across Texas. It provides a perfect shift to a small room on Reconstruction that focuses on a diverse set of experiences via individuals. It highlights stories you would expect from such an exhibit such as occupation soldiers, southerners who sought to regain political power through Reconstruction and beyond, as well as the difficulties of recently freed people trying to find their new place in society. Being Texas, these stories also explore ranchers, cowboys, and other people across the borderlands region.
Situated at the literal heart of Austin and all of Texas, the Bullock Texas State History Museum is a great place to spend the afternoon learning about Texas history and gain some insight into less-known perspectives from the Civil War era. Combined with tours of the University of Texas, the state capital, and the plethora of nearby restaurants and entertainment, you have a fantastic way to experience many cultures of Texas through the ages.
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