Texas Marks 150-year Anniversary of Secession

By MICHAEL GRACZYK
|  Saturday, Jan 29, 2011  |  Updated 10:30 AM CDT
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Texas Marks 150-year Anniversary of Secession

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The Texas flag.

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Sam Houston tried to tell Texans secession and joining the Confederacy wouldn't work.

He warned of "rivers of blood," a generation left dead or crippled by war and ultimate defeat of the South at the hands of the industrial superior North.

"After enduring civil war for years, will there be any promise of a better state of things than we now enjoy?" Houston wrote in a November 1860 letter preserved among documents at his namesake museum in Huntsville.

A secession convention that assembled in Austin 150 years ago this weekend rejected the Texas governor's advice.

"I think everybody pretty much knew what was coming," Mac Woodward, curator of collections at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum, says.

Stoked by unfounded fears and erroneous reports of slave rebellions that became known as the Texas Troubles, Texans in February 1861 approved secession by a 3-1 margin, sending the state barreling toward the Civil War on the losing side and costing Texas hero Houston his job. The only Unionist governor in the South would be removed when he refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy.

Texas became the seventh state to secede and the last to join the Confederate States of America before the war officially started that April.

The Texas defection came despite the blocking efforts of Houston, easily the state's most prominent national figure at the time. He was a hero as leader of the Texas forces that won independence from Mexico in 1836, a two-time president of the Republic of Texas, a state legislator, congressman and senator. Before arriving in Texas, he'd also been governor of Tennessee.

"Here you have a governor, Sam Houston, who continues to say the Union must be preserved, that Texas is better off in the Union," said T. Michael Parrish, a Baylor University history professor whose specialties include Texas and Southern history and the Civil War.

"He had always said that from time of the Texas Revolution and founding of the Republic, he said ultimately the goal was to be annexed as a state. He had to take a courageous stand."

Houston suggested U.S. troops should consider driving the French out of Mexico and not fight each other, hoping to deflect sentiment for an American civil war.

"The summer and fall of 1860 he stumped the state and uttered phrases: 'Rivers of blood will flow, the South can't win, if we do secede we should become our own nation,"' Parrish said.

Houston also spoke out against Jefferson Davis, the provisional president of the Confederacy and a man he knew from their days together in the U.S. Senate.

"They did not like one another, they did not trust one another," Parrish said. "Sam Houston predicted Jefferson Davis would lead the Confederacy to disaster."

Houston refused to call the Legislature into special session to consider secession, but backers of the idea circumvented him, picked delegates for a secession convention and assembled Jan. 28 in the House chamber of the Texas Capitol. According to accounts from the Texas State Library, Gov. Houston, working below them in his first-floor office, described them as "the mob upstairs."

On Feb. 1, delegates voted 166-8 to secede.

"That's not the people," Woodward said of Houston's stance that a public vote was needed. "He goes back to that Jacksonian populist belief: The people need to speak.

"My sense is he was trying to hopefully delay the secession by staging this number of roadblocks, or goals he thought needed to be done."

When a Committee of Safety was authorized by the convention to seize all federal property in the state, Houston summoned Texas Rangers loyal to him to intercept a secessionist posse headed to a federal arsenal in San Antonio. But the commander of U.S. forces in Texas, Gen. David Twiggs, on Feb. 16 surrendered all military property in the state, and a week later the public vote approved the secession convention actions.

"Ultimately, the Legislature said: 'Well, we'll just fix you,"' Woodward said. "'We're going to have all the state officials pledge their allegiance to the Confederacy.' That was what he would not do, the one thing he would not do."

On March 15, the governor's office was declared vacant and Lt. Gov. Edward Clark was sworn in as governor of the Confederate state of Texas.

"The momentum got beyond him," Woodward said.

Ironically, Houston eventually supported Texas' move to the Confederacy.

"When the people voted, he had to live with that," Woodward said. "That was his belief."

Texas, then at the western edge of the nation, avoided much of the devastating battle carnage endured elsewhere in the South. Galveston was blockaded, Corpus Christi was hit by naval cannon, Sabine Pass was the scene of two confrontations, and the last battle of the war occurred in May 1865 at Palmito Ranch near Brownsville, more than a month after Robert E. Lee's surrender.

Records are spotty, but somewhere between 70,000 and 90,000 Texans, more than 10 percent of the state's population, served in the Confederate army. Among them was Houston's son, Sam Jr., who was wounded badly at Shiloh and wound up in a prisoner of war camp in Illinois. The Houston museum has a bible he carried, featuring a bullet hole that travels halfway through the book.

Documents suggest Houston visited Union POWs held at the state prison in Huntsville, where he eventually returned after his ouster from the governor's office and where he died at age 70 in July 1863.

"The thing you always wonder is how much he suffered, how difficult it was for him personally as the Civil War progressed," Woodward said. "His whole life was built on Texas being part of the union and preserving the union."

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