The birthday of Confederate War Gen. Robert E. Lee on Jan. 19 has been a state holiday in Texas since 1973, and descendants of Civil War soldiers observe it on the Saturday before as Confederate Heroes Day.

More than 50 people gathered Saturday on the grounds of the Gregg County Courthouse to honor ancestors who fought and died during the Civil War to defend the South’s “independence.”

The ceremony, which lasted about 45 minutes, included brief speeches; pledges to Confederate, Texas flags and U.S. flags; prayers; songs; gun salutes and the laying of two wreaths before the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse.

The county is named for Texas Brigade Cmdr. John Gregg, who was killed in battle Oct. 7, 1864, during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia.

“We honor (Civil War) veterans, just like we do for World War II commemorations and Vietnam (War) commemorations,” Sam Mercer, commander of the John Gregg Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said before the ceremony.

Mercer, who was born near Greenville, said he had kinfolk who fought on both sides during the Civil War.

The ceremony followed, with 13 men dressed as Confederate soldiers holding Confederate and Texas flags as Jerry Haymes, 5th Brigade and national Sons of Confederate Veterans chaplain, played a drum. One man held an American flag.

Bill Elliott, commander of the W.W. Heartsill Camp in Marshall, quipped he is an “S.O.B.,” which he said stands for being “sons of both” sides. He said two of his great-grandfathers served in the Union Army while another great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy.

Elliott referred to a major sacrifice of Marshall and Harrison County during the Civil War. Nine hundred men went off to war, and 420 did not return.

“So much memory, so much dedication,” Elliott said.

Calling himself the Rebel Mountain story teller, Mark Vogl of Gilmer talked about 48 Irish Catholics who defended Texas by defeating 3,000 Union soldiers who arrived on 22 ships during September 1863 in Sabine Pass.

Event organizers recognized members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, whom they credit for establishing Civil War memorials.

That was followed by Don Majors of the James P. Douglas Chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans of Tyler singing and playing “Dixie” on guitar and a gun salute from the East Texas Compatriots.

“Most of the Confederate soldiers were fighting to defend their land,” Majors said afterward. “My family was dirt farmers.”