This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
Texans from every corner of the state met at Waco on May 16, 1897 to pay their last respects to Richard Coke, but the revered former governor and three-term U.S. Senator refused to go quietly.
Coke will always be remembered for his key role in ridding Texas of the carpetbaggers. Only by keeping his head in the midst of an explosive crisis did the first popularly elected governor since the Civil War prevent the return of the Yankee army.
The 44 year old Democrat beat incumbent Edmund J. Davis fair and square in the fall of 1873. Although he more than doubled the vote total of the Radical Republican, Coke did not expect his stubborn opponent to give up the highest office in the state without a fight.
Sure enough, long before the scheduled changing of the guard in January 1874, Davis defiantly vowed to stay put, at least until the April anniversary of his own inauguration four years earlier. In fact, he planned on nullifying Coke’s election and remaining indefinitely as the ringmaster of Reconstruction.
Davis knew, of course, that the overwhelming majority of Texans would not stand for such shameless shenanigans. Push was bound to come to shove, and thousands of troops would be needed to silence the public uproar.
With that in mind, Davis secretly appealed in advance to his fellow Republican in the White House for the military reoccupation of Texas. Even though Ulysses S. Grant turned down his original request, the lame-duck governor was convinced the president would come through for him in the end.
The incoming Democratic legislators met in Austin on Jan. 12, 1874, the day before they were to assume control. Taking their cue from Davis, the defeated Radicals announced their intention to remain in office and occupied the lower level of the capitol with the support of an armed militia.
During the night, two fearless Democrats slipped past the Radical sentries and crept upstairs to the House and Senate chambers. The daring duo secured the seat of government for their side by barring the heavy doors.
Meanwhile, Davis again asked for aid, and Grant again refused to intervene. But the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation continued with the Radical determined not to be the first to blink.
On Jan. 15, Davis did, however, hand over the official election returns, and later that day Richard Coke was sworn in as governor. “Let the heart of the patriot throb with joy,” he proclaimed, “for the old landmarks of constitutional representative government, so long lost, are this day restored, and the ancient liberties of the people of Texas reestablished.”
But that was not exactly the case, as Davis and his cronies held on for dear life. Everyone’s nerves were stretched to the breaking point as the stand-off at the capitol dragged on for another 48 hours. A pillar of calm resolve, Coke worked around the clock to keep his followers in line and to stop reckless retaliation against the detested Radicals.
A blunt reply from President Grant to Davis’ third and final appeal decided the issue. The attorney general stated flatly no soldiers would be sent to Texas and that the time had come for the Radicals to step aside. Davis accepted his fate, vacated the official premises and led his subdued supporters into political exile.
As the man of the hour, a second term was Gov. Coke’s for the asking. His services were in such demand, however, that just ten days after his April 1876 inauguration state lawmakers selected him for a seat in the United States Senate.
Like any politician, Coke had his critics, including an outspoken detractor who groused, “I don’t like any man like Coke that wears a flop hat and hollers when he speaks.”
To this an admirer answered, “I like that flop hat because I have followed him when he was wearing it on the battlefield. I like to hear him holler because I have heard him holler, ‘Come on, boys’ when the bullets where flying and his men were falling around him. I like him for all you don’t like him for.”
Three terms and nearly two decades later, Coke came home after a distinguished tour of duty in Washington. Retirement proved tragically brief, when he died at his Waco home on May 14, 1897 at the age of 68.
Everybody who was anybody in Texas attended the funeral. The melancholy occasion was turned into a terrifying ordeal by a sudden storm that soaked the mourners to the skin on the way to the cemetery.
Lightning bathed the sad scene in an eerie glow, and deafening claps of thunder drowned out the prayers of the minister. The casket was lowered into the grave only to be carried back to the surface by the rising water.
It was as if old Richard Coke was not quite ready to leave the Lone Star State for the hereafter, a sentiment any true Texan can understand.
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San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.Email | Print