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
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.