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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
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.
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.”