Liberty’s Habitation

We are living through history together. We were before Covid and riots, too. But the time we’re living in isn’t paying much respect to the folks who lived in the epochs before ours.

It’s one thing to look at the practices of our forebears and consider how we’ve evolved….it’s quite another to look at the men of the past and claim we’d have moral superiority had we lived in their time. The combination of moral posturing & time travel fantasy is stupid and dangerous.

I am fond of saying that we cannot rewrite history in our own image.That’s a fool’s errand that denies our forebears their basic humanity. It’s stomach-churning virtue signalling for anyone who’s read a history book not written by Howard Zinn. 

I could write a hellfire & brimstone diatribe about the beating history is taking…and write it well. But I’m not.

Today I want to introduce you to folks who show us the true face of the past. From daily life to map-altering battles, from putting up pork to parade drills, our historical reenactors continue to show the public what once was. They are, in many ways, the vanguard of the army marching to keep history intact.

On March 27, 1836, Col. Fannin and his men were massacred at Goliad. Nine weeks later, Thomas J. Rusk gave the slain something they’d been denied by their murderers: a proper military funeral. Men who survived the Massacre attended as mourners.

184 years later, a group of living historians assembled at Presidio La Bahia to recreate the moment that Rusk honored the fallen. I had the honor of attending, as did my camera.

The first thing you need to know is what this isn’t. It ain’t a bunch of guys who showed up the night before in their skinny jeans, put up at the Super 8, then dressed out in period clothes just before the public arrived in the morning.

To the contrary, once you entered the presidio, 2020 faded from view and the past was omnipresent. No cell phones or Whataburger. Homespun attire and basic rations. 

The evening before the funeral, the men did what the men did in 1836 and always – they acted like men. There was music, courtesy of the fiddler and the voices of the men. Period music, of course…no strains of George Strait would be heard. There were strong spirits (in moderation, excepting Mark who went on an historical drunk & attempted to conjure the spirit of Kenny Rogers.).There was chiding, grappling and even some jousting. Ever seen two grown men chase each other around on horseback trying to smack each other with quirts?

As the night wore on, the men peeled off and went to the barracks to sleep in rope beds…or unfurled a bedroll to recline on the dewy ground. With little light pollution and on a borrowed deerskin, not far from where James Fannin was executed, I counted shooting stars in the sky above Goliad while weary Texians snored around me.

In the morning, per the army order issued by Rusk on June 3, 1836, the living historians formed up for parade to what is now the gravesite monument.

There, at 9 a.m., our T. J. Rusk delivered his pithy oration honoring the men of Goliad. How tough it was to look down the sights of a camera to capture a bloody arm banner waving over Massacre survivors with tears in my eyes!

Three volleys were fired at the gravesite immediately thereafter, true to Rusk’s original orders. The sounds of an 1816 Springfield and a Spanish escopeta firing in unison, and the acrid smoke that clung to the Texians in the calm morning air moved my Texan soul.

God didn’t give me the opportunity to fight for Texas or to even live in that century. He put me here and now instead. Now, I’ve seen the reenactors massacred a dozen times and visited the gravesite. I’ve written about the Massacre at length. But the opportunity to pay my respects in this way gave me a connection to history that even I, as a working historian, wholly lacked.

When the smoke cleared, the men solemnly formed up again and the procession returned to the fort. Our Rusk reclined in the shade of anaqua trees, along with a few of the other Texians. The horses were called upon for a foray beyond the walls. Beef and corn were prepared in the barracks.Tourists stopping by for a Saturday visit were treated to demonstrations with period firearms. And Mark’s hangover loomed as large as the presidio herself.

As many of you know, I had a run-in a few years back with a reenactor who decided to address the crowd at the Massacre with a little bit of revisionist history. I admit that I allowed him and our subsequent exchanges to sour me on the living history community. The guy was just a pompous ass who liked to play dressup, in my esteemed opinion. He still is and still does, as far as I’m aware. I came away from Goliad with an entirely different viewpoint.

The event, formally titled Liberty’s Habitation as a shout out to Rusk’s oration, was coordinated by Mabry L. McMahon (Goliad), David Sifuentes (San Antonio) and Jonathan Woodward (Laredo).

McMahon, 15, is the son of the presidio director and a third generation living historian. He is an active participant in the presidio’s mission to educate the public about daily life and folkways during the fort’s long history. Mabry’s the go-to guy for military drills and a solid horseman. 

Woodward, 25, recently completed his master’s in history and will begin teaching at the college level in the fall.The period clothes on his back for this event were of his own making. And the shotgun he fired for presidio visitors on Saturday was one he assembled himself. Likewise the Brown Bess carbine that was tucked away in the barracks. Jonathan is a rarity in academia – he’s not a Marxist loonbag afraid of being accused of wrongthink. He’s knowledgeable and I get the impression he’s hell bent on continuing to learn.

Sifuentes, 21, of San Antonio is a jack of all trades. He plays the fiddle & knows well the folk songs of the period. He tailors all of his own clothing with a meticulous eye toward historical accuracy. Need leggins or a pair of teguas? David’s your guy. When he goes to the range on the weekend, there’s a flintlock next to his AR-15. He’s a skilled tanner & an adept horseman, does metalwork, woodwork, quillwork and…well, you get the idea. If the dream is defined as thriving in a previous century, Sifuentes is livin’ the dream.

Among the participants, there was true diversity. Ruben – a Lipan Apache from RGV, with a Navy spec ops background, who cares for & trains horses for historical events. David the Elder – a retired history teacher from South Texas who is one hell of a hatter, fiddler and a longtime reenactor. Wade – horseman, Army Ranger turned middle school history teacher. Scott – the presidio director, tailor, artist, and a horseman to be reckoned with. Cody  – site manager out at Fort McKavett, our Rusk, shoemaker and skilled in 19th century photographer. 

The men ranged in age from 15 to 61, from all kinds of educational backgrounds and vocations. All told, across Texas, there are about 5,000 active participants in the living history community. The diehard Texas Revolution reenactors number about 500.

What they have in common is the desire to show the public how people lived through history together before we came along. How did they dress, sleep and eat? How did they prepare for battle? How did they repose in camp? How did they mourn? What gave them joy?

At a time when we are not being kind to history, a few safe havens must remain. One is our Press. We will continue to independently publish Texas history and keep the past fresh in the minds of Texans without regard for what academics think should be written and without care for feelings hurt by the fact that the past, indeed, happened.

Living historians are another vital tether to our past. They go a step further than even I can to keep history alive…they BRING it to life, make it palpable, give it a scent and a voice. Going forward, we will make it a point to keep y’all connected with them. If there are events to attend, let’s attend them. Let’s learn all we can.

Why? Because the erasure of history comes at ya fast, and soon, we (and they) may be the only ones left with the knowledge and the backbone to tell it.

God & Texas,

Michelle M. Haas