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Sam Houston’s Last Fight
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
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
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.