L.P. Walker: The Historic Markers, the Play, the Cemetery Walk
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This engraving of the Confederate Cabinet was published in Harpers’Weekly — Leroy Walker highlighted in yellow.
Southerners are nothing if not conscious of their history, and the career of my distant cousin-by-marriage, the first Secretary of War of the Confederacy, is well documented on the Internet. Tracing the life behind the inscription on my serving spoon, I raced ahead with a combination of fascination and dread – jumping from lily pad to lily pad, from secondary source to facsimile document. He did not have a good war, that much was clear. But I also discovered that in post-war Alabama he played his part in what I believe is the greatest feat of the Confederate South: turning the losers into winners.
He was influential in the so-called Bourbon Democrats, Southern conservatives who worked to end Reconstruction and restore power to the white-supremacist elite. (According to the Dictionary of Alabama, the term Bourbon refers not to the South’s – and my family’s – preferred beverage, but to France’s Bourbon Dynasty, after the Revolution — those who “have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”)
Reading about Leroy’s life, I was beginning to see him as a case of Upward Failure, Confederate version. This career path, open only to those of the right gender, race and economic status, ensures that incompetent performance need not hinder a rising job trajectory. In 1875, for example, Leroy presided over an Alabama Constitutional Convention that favored agrarian over industrial interests, putting the state on the path to becoming one of the poorest in the nation, as it remains today. It seems he was no better as a peacetime visionary than he had been as a wartime cabinet secretary or brigadier general.
Walker did have a late-in-life triumph in 1883, when he defended a Confederate soldier turned celebrity bank and train robber: Frank James, brother of Jesse James. The trial pitted the South against the North all over again. Walker’s opposing counsel, William H. Smith, had not only served in the Union Army, he’d marched across the South with General Sherman.
Following that, he’d served a term as Alabama’s Governor during Reconstruction. None of this endeared him to a jury made up mostly of former Confederate soldiers; it didn’t take them long to decide that the witnesses who identified Frank James as one of the robbers were lying. By all accounts, Leroy Pope Walker’s summation for the defense was brilliant and Frank James walked out of the Huntsville courthouse a free man.
Walker died two years later but his legacy lives on: in historic markers around Huntsville; in a local theater group’s production based on the Frank James trial; in the inclusion of a Leroy Walker re-enactor in a Halloween event known as the Maple Hill Cemetery stroll.
This annual affair features enthusiastic citizens on parade costumed as departed Huntsville notables. Since 1822, when Leroy’s father sold the land for the cemetery to the town, Maple Hill has been the last resting place for Huntsville’s elite –including five Alabama governors and five Alabama US Senators. In 2012, the cemetery successfully petitioned the Department of the Interior to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, describing itself as “the only burial place for white Huntsville until 1965.”
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