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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
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.