- Shelby Park was named after a Confederate general who refused to surrender
- Joseph Orville Shelby fled to Mexico and lived in a Confederate colony there
- A historian says Shelby’s story still resonates today
- Activist: “Now more than ever we need to change the name of the park”
Shelby Park in Eagle Pass, Texas, has become a staging ground for state forces, the epicenter of a standoff with the federal government and a stark symbol of dysfunction at the border.
But there’s another story about this park that’s far less well known than the recent legal battle over immigration enforcement in this border city.
The 47-acre park along the Rio Grande was named after a Confederate military leader who fled to Mexico in 1865 rather than surrendering to Union troops.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency case study describing the park notes that it was named for General Joseph Orville Shelby, known to some as the “undefeated rebel.”
“What struck me about it is the irony of all this,” says historian Jeremi Suri, who wrote about Shelby and other Confederate exiles in his 2022 book, “Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy.”
Most people likely aren’t familiar with Shelby’s story. But there’s a clear resonance between this moment and Shelby’s rarely recalled chapter of American history, Suri says.
“I see those attitudes now as well,” says Suri, who holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. “The reason these exiles are important is they kind of (are used to) legitimize this discussion of secession…which is really sticking your middle finger up at the federal government and saying, ‘we’re going to do it our way, and you can’t make us do it differently.’”
The park’s name, Suri says, reveals more about the current dispute than any argument in the immigration debate.
“What this is really about is about power for groups that have power and don’t want to give up power. The naming of that park, rather than naming it Martin Luther King Jr. park or Cesar Chavez park, was an assertion of power, and the irony is that assertion has now become militarized in that space again,” he says.
How a Texas border city became known as the ‘grave of the confederacy’
In the prologue to his 2010 book “General Jo Shelby’s March,” the late historian Anthony Arthur painted a dramatic picture of Shelby and his troops leaving Eagle Pass and heading south. As the group stood in the Rio Grande, they plunged the Confederate battle flag into the river rather than letting Union forces get their hands on it.
“He withdrew the black plume from his hat brim and laid it gently within the folds of the flag before it vanished beneath the muddy water,” Arthur wrote.
Local historian Jeff Taylor Sr. says rumors have swirled over the years that the flag was later retrieved from the waters. But the myth of that moment has endured, earning a nickname for Eagle Pass as the “grave of the Confederacy.” For years, a painting depicting the scene hung in the Eagle Pass City Hall. Reenactors would even travel to the border city to relive it.
“It was just something kind of famous. … Nobody really thought about it,” Taylor told CNN.