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Sam Houston’s Last Fight

July 2024
17min read

At sixty-six his bones ached from the wounds of two wars, but as Southern pressure for secession mounted, “Old Sam Jacinto” battled to keep his beloved Texas in the Union

The people gathered on the Galveston wharf broke into cheers as soon as they saw him. There was no mistaking the tall, white-haired man in the Mexican sombrero and scrape descending the gangplank of the packet that had just docked. It was the old hero, Sam Houston, returning to Texas from Washington, where just a short time before he had completed his final term in the Senate. In cheering him that spring day in 1859, Texans felt that they were cheering Texas itself, so closely was he identified with the state, so great had been his part in its origin and development. More than that, they were honoring a man who could look back upon a career which extended over more than half the nation’s history—which, indeed, had contributed mightily to the shaping of that history.

Born in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in 1793, Houston travelled at the age of fourteen in a covered wagon with his widowed mother to the wilds of Tennessee. There he lived much of the time among the Cherokee Indians, who adopted him into their tribe and gave him the name of Co-lon-neh, “The Raven.” Ever afterward he found the company of the red man as congenial as that of the white (and sometimes more so). In addition, he acquired an Indianlike penchant for using subtle, secretive methods in achieving his ends. From an early age his strongest interest was the military life. When the War of 1812 began, he joined the army and became an officer; at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in eastern Alabama—where on March 27, 1814, Andrew Jackson and his Cherokee allies all but annihilated a stubborn band of Creeks—young Ensign Houston displayed outstanding gallantry, suffering terrible wounds and gaining the personal notice and favor of General Jackson. After the war he entered politics and with Jackson’s backing became first a member of Congress, then Governor of Tennessee. Some of his friends were beginning to speak of the White House when suddenly, without a word of explanation, he resigned the governorship, left his beautiful young wife of only a few weeks, and fled to the land of the Cherokees in Tennessee. All that is known with any certainty is that he had discovered that his wife loved another man, and that rather than hold her in a meaningless marriage, he sacrificed his political prospects and took himself out of her life.

For the next several years he was a broken man. The Indians with whom he lived conferred upon him a new name—Oo-tse-tee Ar-dee-tah-skee, “Big Drunk.” But eventually he pulled himself together and in 1833 headed for Texas to realize the “great destiny” which he had always believed awaited him in the West. He quickly rose to prominence in Texas affairs, and when in 1835 the Americans there rebelled against the rule of the Mexican dictator Santa Anna, Houston became commander of the Texas army. Cleverly avoiding battle while his own forces grew stronger and the enemy’s weaker, he surprised and defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, thereby securing for Texas its independence. He served two terms as President of the new Lone Star Republic, and by skillful diplomacy helped bring about its annexation to the United States in 1845. During the years that ensued, he served as a senator in Washington, where he joined Clay and Webster in trying to maintain peace between North and South. Meanwhile, his first marriage having been dissolved, he married Margaret Lea—a union that was to prove as happy as the first had been tragic.

Upon returning to Texas from Washington in the spring of 1859, Houston was sixty-six, but although the wounds of Horseshoe Bend and San Jacinto ached painfully on rainy days, and although his once-thick chestnut hair was thin and white, his massive six-foot-two-inch frame was straight and vigorous, and his blue eyes remained clear and commanding. Above all, he retained his sense of destiny, and with it a young man’s ability to dream. His present dream was nothing less than becoming President of the United States and saving the nation from the civil war that threatened it.

It was only natural that Houston would want to culminate his career with the highest office and greatest honor of all. To understand his desire to save the Union—at a time when many of his friends would willingly have seen it dissolved—one must realize that Houston was a loyal disciple of Andrew Jackson.

Back in 1830, when South Carolina had first threatened secession, Old Hickory had declared, “Our Union: it must be preserved!” In the mounting crisis of the eighteen fifties, Houston made this his guiding principle. Like Jackson, he believed that slavery was an artificial issue, concocted and exploited for partisan purposes by unscrupulous demagogues on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. But he feared that unless something was done to reduce sectional hostility, the inevitable result would be the breakup of the Union.

What was needed, he decided, was some great new issue or cause that would distract the public mind from the slavery controversy and restore national unity. After trying and discarding various other devices, he finally took up the gaudy banner of Manifest Destiny: He would unite the American people by appealing to their powerful lust for territorial expansion.

To the south lay Mexico—enticingly rich, invitingly weak. Houston envisioned himself as taking the lead in establishing an American “protectorate” there. Not only would the North and South forget their differences to join in this glorious enterprise, but a grateful and admiring nation would reward him with the White House. As President, Houston would act in the tradition of Jackson, harmonizing the interests of all sections and discrediting all those fanatics and demagogues who would destroy the Union.

Such, at any rate, was Houston’s reasoning. It was indeed, as Walter Prescott Webb called it, a “grand plan,” characteristic in its magnitude of the man who conceived it. And, so far as a Mexican conquest was concerned, it was not nearly as fantastic as it may appear in retrospect.

To begin with, American conquest of Mexico was not a new idea. In 1805, Aaron Burr had plotted to seat himself on the throne of the Montezumas. In 1848, there had been a strong movement to keep the United States flag flying permanently over Mexico City, where Winfield Scott’s victorious troops had planted it. And only recently President James Buchanan had openly advocated annexing the upper portion of Mexico. Moreover, filibustering was in the air in the eighteen fifties. In 1851 a band of Americans had invaded Cuba, and in 1856 a pint-sized bravo named William Walker had made himself—for a brief time—master of Nicaragua (see “The Gray-Eyed Man of Destiny” in the December, 1957, issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Houston simply proposed to conduct a filibuster on a giant scale.

Moreover, the chronic political chaos in Mexico provided both an excuse and an occasion for intervention. In his last speech before the Senate, Houston had argued that most Mexicans would welcome an American protectorate as an escape from anarchy; from a strictly military standpoint, therefore, conquest would be easy.

But before he could conquer Mexico, Houston had first to reconquer Texas. In 1854 he and John Bell of Tennessee had been the only two Southern senators to vote against Stephen A. Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Bill, the controversial measure that repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had barred slavery in that portion of the Louisiana Purchase that lay north of latitude 36° 30′. Since most Texans believed that the Kansas-Nebraska Bill favored the South, Senator Houston’s opposition to it lost him much of his support. In 1857, when he ran for governor, he suffered a resounding defeat—the first time Texans had ever rejected his leadership. He was returning home in 1859 determined to avenge this loss and regain his customary hold over their minds, hearts, and votes. Once in the governor’s chair at Austin he would, God willing, carry out his Mexican plans.

The prospects were most propitious. The settlers in the southern and western counties blamed Governor Hardin Runnels, the man who had defeated Houston in ’57, for failing to protect them against Indian raids and the depredations of Mexican guerrillas under red-bearded Juan Cortinas. In addition, Texans everywhere in the state had now begun to realize that the Kansas-Nebraska Act had merely led to trouble for the South; in 1859 they were prepared to vote for Houston for the very same reason they had voted against him in 1857—his stanch opposition to the act.

Houston ran simply as “Old Sam Jacinto, the People’s Candidate.” So confident was he of victory that he made only one speech during the campaign, whereas in 1857 he had made dozens. In that speech, delivered at Nacogdoches, he denounced his opponents as secessionists motivated by an unholy desire for office and power. The South, he declared, was in no real or immediate danger from the North; but if it were, it would find safety under the Constitution and within the Union.

When the votes were tallied, the old hero had 36,257 to 27,500 for Runnels. The defeat of 1857 was avenged.

Houston took office in December and immediately began laying the groundwork for his invasion project. Since he had no legal authority for engaging in such an enterprise, he had to proceed covertly and indirectly. But to a man some called the Great Designer, this was no particular embarrassment.

His first move was to increase the strength of the Texas Rangers to nearly one thousand men. The purpose of this build-up, he announced, was to drive back the Indians and to subdue Cortinas. In actuality, he saw the Rangers as the spearhead of the southward thrust across the Rio Grande. At the same time he endeavored to obtain weapons for an even larger army. Early in March he asked the War Department to send 2,000 percussion rifles, 1,000 Sharps carbines, and 3,000 Colt revolvers to Texas—to help it protect itself, he explained, against the Mexicans and Indians.

Here Houston met his first check. The authorities in Washington were aware of his Mexican interests and easily saw through his subterfuge. Moreover, although the Buchanan administration itself favored a Mexican protectorate, it did not care to have Houston establish one, especially in view of his presidential aspirations, which were also well known in Washington. Secretary of War John Floyd politely but firmly declined the request for additional arms.

Houston was disappointed but not discouraged. He had beaten the Mexicans in one war without aid from the federal government, and he could do it again. Besides, if Washington refused to furnish the necessary means, perhaps London would.

British bankers held several million dollars’ worth of Mexican bonds. The Mexican government (if such it could be called) had repudiated its debts, and the bankers faced a total loss on their investment. Houston believed they might be willing to finance his Mexican filibuster in return for a guarantee that their bonds would be redeemed once the protectorate was a reality.

He arranged a meeting in New York between representatives of the British bondholders and three of his own agents. “All the talk about raising funds in the United States is gammon,” he wrote to one of his men. “If the Bond Holders cannot be approached, it would take years to raise a reliable force to achieve any glorious result.… As to the plan of operation, that is a small matter; and if we have the sinews … it will be an easy matter to give motion to the achievement in the right direction.”

While the negotiations were pending in New York, Houston was casting about for a man to command his Mexican invasion. Had he been twenty or even ten years younger, of course, he would not have looked for another. But as things were, he needed a champion to wield the sword for him.

During the recent war with Mexico, one young officer had stood out above all the others for courage, skill, and endurance. By a fortunate coincidence this officer arrived in Texas early in 1860 to take command of the operations against Cortinas. He was from Virginia, he held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, and his name was Robert E. Lee.

Houston contacted Lee through A. M. Lea, a close friend who previously had recommended the tall Virginian as an ideal leader for the Mexican expedition. Lea reported on Lee to Houston late in February:

You will find that I have not painted an imaginary character. If you invite him to a conference about the defense of the frontier, you will find true all I have said of his manners and ability. As he is a “Preux chevalier, sans peur et sans reproche,” he is very careful to do nothing that may cast a slur upon his name. He would not touch anything that he would consider vulgar filibustering; but he is not without ambition, and, under the sanction of Govt. might be more than willing to aid you to pacificate Mexico; and if the people of the U. States should recall you from the “Halls of Montezumas” to the “White House” at Washington, you would find him well fitted to carry out your great idea of a Protectorate. He is well informed in matters of state, honest, modest, brave and skillful.…

Houston must have been impressed by this praise (which indicates, incidentally, how highly Lee was regarded even before he became a great general), for he instructed Lea to offer the Virginian command of the proposed invasion. On March 1 the Colonel replied:

I am very much obliged to you for your friendly letters of the 24th, 25th, and 26th ult. which arrived together in the last mail. I feel that I owe to your kindness rather than to my merit your recommendations to Govr. Houston. I am aware of his ability, and first became acquainted with him upon my entrance into the Military Academy. He was President of the Board of Visitors that year and the impression he made has never been effaced. I have followed with interest his career since, and have admired his manly qualities and conservative principles. His last position in favor of the Constitution and Union elicits my cordial approbation. Should military force be required to quiet our Mexican frontier, I have no doubt that arrangements will be made to maintain the rights and peace of Texas, and, I hope, in conformity to the Constitution and laws of the country. It will give me great pleasure to do all in my power to support both.

One has to read between the lines to perceive Lee’s full meaning. In effect he was saying that if a military expedition against Mexico received the sanction of the federal government, he would be pleased to lead it. Otherwise, he could be no party to it; if need be he would even act against it with his troops.

In declining Houston’s offer, Lee was doubtless guided both by his high standard of duty and by a realistic appraisal of the nature of the Governor’s scheme. Nevertheless, one cannot help but speculate that, if only for a moment, he knew temptation. He had been in the army for thirty years, yet despite his many services and unequalled record, he was still only a lieutenant colonel. Men inferior to him in performance and ability, but superior in the art of Washington wirepulling, had been promoted over him. In 1860, the prospect of his ever becoming a general must have seemed exceedingly dim.

The failure to enlist Lee’s services caused Houston to turn to his old friend and fellow Texan, Ben McCulloch. Not only was McCulloch privy to Houston’s plans, but he was renowned as the dashing and highly successful commander of the Texas Rangers in the Mexican War. “Ben will do for a very ‘Big Captain’ as my Red Brothers say,” Houston remarked.

By August the Governor had done everything within his power to raise and equip an army capable of conquering Mexico. The rest depended on the British bondholders. If they decided to back the expedition, then perhaps before the year was out, 10,000 Texas cavalry headed by McCulloch would be crossing the Rio Grande on their way to the Halls of Montezuma. Houston, as governor, would order the invasion on the grounds of defending his state against Mexican depredations. Then, at the opportune moment, he would resign the governorship and proclaim himself “protector” of Mexico, justifying this action with the assertion that he would be bringing law, peace, and order to the anarchic Mexicans, and promoting the cause of democracy and civilization in the Western Hemisphere. And the name of Houston would lead all others as the popular choice for President—if not in 1860, then surely in 1864.

But it was not to be. The British bondholders turned down Houston’s proposal. As he had feared, they were not prepared to trust someone so far from London in so risky an enterprise. And without money nothing could be done.

At least for the time being. Before abandoning the idea completely he made one last effort. The secession crisis of 1861 provided the opportunity.

Public sentiment in Texas following Lincoln’s election overwhelmingly favored emulating South Carolina and the other southern states that were pulling out of the Union. Houston knew that the secession of Texas was sooner or later inevitable.

But was it inevitable that Texas join the new “confederacy” being set up at Montgomery, Alabama? Was there any reason why the old Lone Star Republic could not be re-established? And, as an independent nation, why could not Texas take over Mexico?

Houston gave public expression to these thoughts early in January, 1861, in a reply to J. M. Calhoun, “Commissioner from Alabama,” who had come to Austin to invite Texas to join in forming a confederacy:

Should Alabama, without waiting for the action of Texas, withdraw from the Union, and Texas by the force of circumstances, be compelled at a future period, to provide for her own safety, the course of Alabama, South Carolina, and such other States as may follow their lead, will but strengthen the conviction, already strong among our people, that their interest will lead them to avoid entangling alliances, and enter once again upon a national career.… Texas has views of expansion not common to many of her sister States. Although an empire within herself, she feels that there is an empire beyond, essential to her security. She will not be content to have the path of her destiny clogged. The same spirit of enterprise that founded a Republic here, will carry her institutions Southward and Westward.

Unfortunately, Houston’s go-it-alone policy went counter to the desire and expectations of most Texans. Only some of the old settlers, with nostalgic memories of the Republic, supported him. When he spoke in Waco in favor of a “separate Republic of the Lone Star,” the crowd responded with three cheers for South Carolina, and newspapers throughout the state denounced him as a “submissionist” and a “traitor to the South.” Never before—not even in 1857—had Houston’s popularity sunk so low.

He believed, however, that “given time, I can, in any situation, bring Texas to my bidding.” He had done so on numerous occasions in the past, and he now sought to do so again by employing delaying tactics designed to prevent the state from seceding until he could bring about a change in public sentiment.

But the secessionists, who readily guessed Houston’s intention, were too powerful and determined to be denied. Over his strenuous objections they had the legislature call into being a state convention, which on February i, 1861, voted 167 to 7 in favor of secession as the first step in joining the Confederacy. Houston’s opposition, however, forced the convention to submit its action to a popular referendum—the only one held in any of the Southern states that left the Union. The referendum, he hoped, would serve to postpone secession while he took his case for a new Lone Star Republic directly to the people.

During the early part of February he set out to stump the state. At Galveston, where hotheads had threatened to kill him if he spoke, he declared to a large and hostile audience:

Some of you laugh to scorn the idea of bloodshed as the result of secession. But let me tell you what is coming.… Your fathers and husbands, your sons and brothers, will be herded at the point of the bayonet.… You may, after the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, as a bare possibility, win Southern independence.… but I doubt it.

It was a magnificent performance, but all quite futile. Pro-Confederate mobs and night riders terrorized many Unionists into voting for secession or at least staying away from the polls. Many other Texans were simply indifferent to the outcome, or else felt that the result was foreordained. Altogether, less than half the eligible voters went to the polls, and those who did voted three to one in favor of secession. Accordingly, on March 2, the convention proclaimed Texas out of the Union. Ironically, it was both the twenty-fifth anniversary of Texas’ independence and the sixty-eighth birthday of Sam Houston.

Next the convention took steps to remove the Governor from office, or at least force him to abandon his opposition to the secessionist program. After ratifying the Confederate constitution, the convention passed a law requiring all state officials to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. It then notified the Governor that he was to appear before it on the morning of March 16, at its meeting hall in the cream-colored limestone capitol building, to take the oath.

Houston debated whether or not to obey the summons. From the first he had refused to recognize that the convention had any legal existence. If he took the oath, he would not only be humbling himself before his triumphant enemies but would also be sanctioning what he deemed usurpation. On the other hand, if he refused, then he would be deposed as governor and lose all chance of realizing his Mexican ambitions or controlling the course of affairs in Texas.

On the night of March 15 he went to his room on the second floor of the rather ramshackle frame house which served as the “temporary” executive mansion of Texas. Taking off his coat, vest, and shoes, he began pondering what his decision should be. All through the night his wife and children could hear him pacing back and forth in his bedroom and in the upper hall, “wrestling with his spirit,” one of his daughters later said, “as Jacob wrestled with the angel.…”

By morning he had made up his mind. Coming down the stairs, still in his shirt sleeves and stocking feet, he entered the kitchen where his wife was preparing breakfast and announced in a quiet voice:

“Margaret, I will never do it.”

Later in the morning the convention assembled according to schedule, the members filled with a sense of impending drama. At the appointed time the president of the convention stepped up to the rostrum and called out: “Sam Houston!”

There was no reply.

“Sam Houston!”

Again there was silence.

For the third and final time he repeated: “Sam Houston!”

No answer. The Governor sat alone in his office in the basement of the capitol, whittling on a pine stick.

Upon Houston’s failure to appear, the convention declared the post of governor vacant and appointed Lieutenant Governor Edward Clark to fill it. The Southern nationalists were the masters of Texas. Its flag was to be not the Lone Star but the Stars and Bars.

Houston denounced the convention for usurpation and declared that he remained the rightful governor. But he knew he was beaten. “It is, perhaps, meet that my career should close thus,” he stated in a letter to the people of Texas. “I have seen patriots and statesmen of my youth one by one gathered to their fathers, and the government which they have reared rent in twain. … I stand the last almost of my race. …” Beyond written protest, however, he would not go. Twice armed support was offered him, and twice he refused it.

On the night of March 19, as he was packing to leave the governor’s mansion, a group of friends visited him. They were prepared, they announced, to fight to keep him in power. Although deeply moved by their loyalty, Houston told them to abandon such thoughts: “It would be criminal to deluge the capital of Texas with the blood of Texans, merely to keep one poor old man in a position a few days longer.”

A second offer of help came from a much higher source: President Abraham Lincoln. It was not Lincoln’s first approach. Sometime in February, while still President-elect, he had sent a letter to Houston by means of an agent named George D. Giddings in which he proposed, as soon as he should be inaugurated, to send an army to help Houston keep Texas in the Union. The Governor showed the letter to four close friends and asked their advice. Only one favored accepting Lincoln’s proposal. Houston thereupon burned the letter, saying as he did so: “Gentlemen, I have asked your advice and will take it, but if I were twenty years younger I would accept Mr. Lincoln’s proposition…” He then told Giddings to inform Lincoln that he did not desire his assistance, and that instead of more Federal troops in Texas, those already there should be withdrawn in order to avoid civil war.

Lincoln, misled by inaccurate newspaper accounts of Houston’s fight against secession, apparently thought that Giddings, a Democrat, had failed to report the Governor’s views correctly. In any case, late in March, following his inauguration, he sent Colonel Frederick W. Lander to Texas with a confidential message for Houston. At the same time, the War Department ordered Colonel Carlos A. Waite, commander of the federal garrison in Texas, to establish an entrenched camp for the purpose of giving “aid and comfort to General Houston.”

Lander arrived in Austin about March 29—two weeks after the convention had deposed Houston- and communicated to him the plan to support him with Waite’s army. Once again the Texan thrust aside Lincoln’s assistance; he even wrote to Waite, protesting against “the concentration of troops in fortifications in Texas.” He loved the Union but he loved Texas as much, if not more. He would not plunge his state into civil war in order to keep it in the Union against its manifest wish, tragically mistaken though he thought that wish to be.

Back in 1854 he had predicted that secession would lead to war, and that war would result in the South’s going down “in the unequal contest, in a sea of blood and smoking ruin.” Now, making his way homeward from Austin, he stopped at Brenham and made a speech in which he repeated this warning. His listeners merely laughed; the local secessionists threatened to kill him if he did not stop making such “treasonable statements.”

So Houston’s dream came to an end. He had waited too long to achieve it. Had he been younger, and had the Civil War been averted or postponed, he might have succeeded. As it was, his scheme was doomed to failure from the start. He had hoped to heal the division of the country through expansion; but the division, culminating in secession and war, made expansion impossible.∗ Even if Houston’s plan had succeeded, a Texas-initiated protectorate over Mexico might have precipitated the very conflict he sought to prevent, for the North undoubtedly would have regarded it as a Southern plot to extend the sway of slavery. Yet in waging his fight to keep Texas in the Union, or at least out of the Confederacy, he had displayed magnificent courage and prophetic foresight. There are those who would contend that this last battle, though it ended in defeat, was his greatest one.

After the outbreak of the war which he had feared and predicted, Houston loyally supported the Confederacy—in public. In private, he continued to speculate on the possibility of reviving the Lone Star Republic, and even dabbled in some intrigues to that purpose. He lived long enough to see his warning—that secession would lead to disaster for the South—begin to come true. Moreover, he had the satisfaction of knowing that he had regained much of his old popularity, as more and more Texans came to regret that they had not listened to him. By the summer of 1863 Texas newspapers were mentioning Houston as a likely candidate for governor, and most of them conceded that if he ran he would win.

So old Sam had been right after all: given time, he could always get Texans to come around to his way of thinking. Only now there was no more time. On July 26, 1863, after a short illness, he died at his ranch near Huntsville—truly the last of his race.

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