It’s an old-fashioned study in contrasts, considering the two of them, Abraham Lincoln and Sam Houston; both political giants, both of them a linchpin around which a certain point of American history turned, both of them men of the frontier. The similarities continue from that point: both of them almost entirely self-educated, as lawyers among other things. From reading accounts by their contemporaries, it is clear that each possessed an enormous amount of personal charm. In modern terms, both would have been a total blast to hang out with, socially. In their own time each of them also acquired enormous numbers of bitter enemies. In fact, for a hero-founder of Texas, Houston attracted a considerable degree of vitriol from others among his contemporaries, and a level of published vilification which was not bettered until Lincoln appeared on the national scene as the presidential candidate favored by the north in the 1860 election. And both of them had ups and downs in their political and personal lives, although it’s hard to argue that Lincoln’s personal story arc was anything as eventful as that of Houston, who appears as the ADHD child of Jacksonian-era politics.

Sam HoustonBut they were also opposites in at least as many ways as they were similar. The family of Samuel Houston had at least some pretensions to property and gentility, whereas that of Lincoln had not the slightest shred of either. Born in 1793, Houston was just barely old enough to have served actively in the War of 1812. He seems on that account to have been representative of an earlier generation than that of Lincoln, a generation only a half-step removed from the founding fathers. He came to the notice of Andrew Jackson, and thereafter spent much of his life when not strolling up and down the corridors of power, loitering meaningfully in the vicinity. He served variously in the Army or state militia of Tennessee, as an Indian agent, in Congress and as elected governor of Tennessee. He was married three times, was an absolutely legendary drunk and lived with the Cherokee tribe for a number of years on two occasions. He was brave, impulsive and addicted to flamboyant gestures and attire, being talked with great difficulty out of wearing a green velvet suit to one of his inaugurations as the President of independent Texas. He was also, to judge from portraits and photographs a very handsome man, resembling a rather rugged Colin Firth on a bad hair day.

Houston’s enduring legend was established as the hero of Texan independence; just another one of those footloose adventurers, drifting in during the 1830ies. Like those whose names would be soon written in letters of blood and gold – Bowie, Crockett, and Travis, he was under a cloud and looked to Texas for redemption. Unlike the other three, he would survive the experience. Some of Sam Houston’s cloud was of his own making: he went from a disastrously and very publicly failed marriage, leaving his term as governor of Tennessee and going on what appeared to have been a prolonged bender in the Cherokee Territory before pulling himself together and going to Texas. In the mad confusion that was the founding of independent Texas in the spring of 1836, Houston was about the only senior military commander who kept a cool head, faced with Santa Anna’s invading army. He also — and this was no mean feat — kept his cool in the tomcats-in-a-sack political wrangling that proved to be fairly typical of Texas state politics, then and forever afterwards. He pulled together an effective army, and decoyed Santa Anna into East Texas, farther and farther, until his own commanders were on the verge of deciding he was a coward and would not fight at all. But he turned, when he had the terrain in his favor, and became that rarest of heroes; the one who dies of old age in his own bed. By then he had married Margaret Lea, who was half his age at the time, a shy and beautiful southern belle with a spine of steel; she stopped him from drinking, and kept him more or less on the straight and narrow for the rest of his life.

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln was born in obscurity and might very well have stayed there, save for the unquenchable burning spark that led him once to walk twenty miles to borrow a book that he had not read before. One has the impression of a ferociously hungry intellect, pulling every scrap of knowledge, of history and poetry, politics and the law into a mind never entirely content. It has been speculated recently that he was subject to bouts of deep depression. He was also ambitious, and went into politics early, while still in his early twenties before teaching himself law and being admitted to the bar in 1837. He practiced law in Springfield, Illinois and increasingly involved himself in state political affairs.

The existing pictures of Lincoln give an impression of melancholy, of someone haunted by unbearable sorrow, whereas those of Houston in his prime seem to be of a scrappy fighter with three aces among the cards in his hand, and a fairly good idea of where he will find a fourth. Another difference between the two: Lincoln was not handsome. In the words of the country expression: he fell from the top of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. From the accounts of his closest early friends, he was the most endearing and entertaining company, a gifted raconteur and mimic, able to reduce his audience to helpless laughter, and a shrewd lawyer, particularly relentless in cross-examination. He married the lively and cultivated daughter of a notable and politically well connected family from Kentucky, the Todds of Lexington. Mary Todd had also been courted by Stephen Douglas, with whom Lincoln would debate over the slavery issue in 1858. Possibly that added a frisson to the debates; one cannot tell at this late date, though.

In 1846 he was elected to the US House of Representatives for one relatively lackluster term, before devoting himself almost exclusively to law for most of the subsequent decade. He returned to politics again, as the question of America’s ‘peculiar institution’ of chattel slavery went from a simmer to a full rolling boil on the stovetop of political consciousness. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 seemed to be nothing more than a crude exercise of the power of pro-slavery expansionists, in permitting the spread of slavery to territories where it had been forbidden in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The public debates, and lectures which followed, energized that portion of the Northern public which was against such expansion, or even the existence of the institution itself and brought Lincoln to more than just local attention. He was put on the Republican ticket in the 1860 presidential contest as a compromise candidate, a moderate who would attract voters in the western states. His election was seen as a low blow by the Southern slave-holding states, who began walking out almost before the voting was finished. Texas was among them, even though Sam Houston was governor of the state that he had variously served as general, congressman and president. Although he owned slaves, he was a unionist, and valiantly fought a delaying action against the secessionists. Lincoln even offered to send Federal troops to keep Texas in the Union: Houston declined, and rather than swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, left his office and public life.

They might possibly have met face to face. They had a chance of course, being both in Washington at the same time, from 1846-1848: Lincoln in the House of Representatives, and Houston in the Senate. One of Houston’s biographers speculates that if Houston had only been a little younger, and had been considered more than briefly for the 1860 presidential slate of candidates the Civil War might have been averted or delayed for another few years. Or maybe not.

(The original version of this essay came about when I was trying to channel what Sam Houston would have thought of Lincoln, as part of writing Adelsverein: The Sowing, which deals with the Civil War as it was experienced in the Texas Hill Country.)

01. August 2012 · Comments Off on The Nueces Fight and ‘True to the Union’ · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , , ,

As I am going up to Comfort on the 11th, to take part in the 150th anniversary observences of the Nueces Fight, and since it has been a while since I wrote about this — herewith some background.)

Who would have thought that deep in the heart of a staunchly Confederate state, there would have been a large population of Unionists? But there was; and not only did they vote against Secession, but the governor of Texas himself was a Unionist. He was none other than Sam Houston himself, the hero of San Jacinto, who more than any other Texas man of note had politicked and maneuvered for ten long years so that Texas could join the United States. In the end, Texas seceded; instead of going it alone again, the secession party joined the Confederacy with what some observers considered to be reckless enthusiasm – especially considering the perilous position of those settlements on the far frontier. Those settlements had been protected from marauding Comanche, Apache and Kiowa by the efforts of US troops – and who would guard them now? When the Texas legislature passed a law requiring all public officials to swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, Sam Houston resigned rather than take it. Being then of a good age, of long and devoted service to the people of Texas and held in deep respect even by citizens who didn’t agree with his stand, Sam Houston retired without incident to his home near Huntsville.

Other staunch Unionists in Texas were not able to refuse the demands of the Confederacy as easily as wily old General Sam. Among those who felt the wrath of the Confederacy most keenly were the German settlers of the Hill Country. Most of those settlers had come from Europe in the late 1840s; others had settled in San Antonio, Galveston and Indianola. In many cases they were the mercantile elite, as well as providing a solid leavening of skilled doctors, engineers, scientists, artists, teachers and writers in those communities. They were also Abolitionists; and in an increasingly perilous position as the split between free-soil states and those which permitted chattel slavery widened during the 1850s. Once Texas went Confederate, they were in even more danger, although they did not at first appear to realize this. Those citizens and counties which favored the Union and abolition could not easily separate, as West Virginia had from Virginia: they were stuck. The war began and ground on … and the breaking point came early in 1862 with passage of a conscription law. Every white male between the age of eighteen and thirty-five was liable for military service. This outraged those who had been opposed to slavery and secession, to the point of riots, evasion and covert resistance. Texas abolitionists and Unionists would be forced to fight in defense of an institution they despised, and for a political body they had opposed. Only a bare handful of men from Gillespie, Kendall and Kerr counties volunteered for service in the Confederate Army throughout 1861 and 1862, although good few more were perfectly willing to serve as state troops protecting the frontier, or in local volunteer companies of Rangers. Anyone who wanted a fight could take on the Indians, without the trouble of going east for military glory.

Before very long, the distinct un-enthusiasm in the Hill Country for the Confederacy and all its works and ways became a matter of deep concern to military and governing authorities. In a way, it was a clash of mind-sets: the German immigrants were innocently certain that the freedom of speech and political thought which they had always enjoyed since coming to Texas were still viable. The pro-Confederate authorities saw such thought and speech as disloyalty, clear evidence of potentially dangerous spies and saboteurs … and acted accordingly. In the spring of 1862, Gillespie and Kerr County was put under harsh martial law. All men over the age of 16 were ordered to register with the local provost marshal and take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. Few did so – and many never heard of the order, until the state troopers arrived to enforce it, under the command of a peppery, short-tempered former teamster; Captain James Duff.

By summer, Captain Duff ordered the arrest of any man who had not taken the loyalty oath. His troopers waged a savage campaign; flogging men they had arrested until they told his troopers what they wanted to hear, wrecking settler’s homes, arresting whole families, and confiscating foodstuffs and livestock. Men of draft age took to hiding out in the brush near their homes, while their families smuggled food to them. Frequently parties of Duff’s men assigned to arrest certain men returned empty-handed, with the subject of the arrest warrant left dangling on a rope from a handy tree on the return journey. Four out of six men arrested near Spring Branch in the Pedernales Valley and taken to be interned with other Unionists were summarily lynched when two of them escaped while their guards were asleep. A state trooper serving in the Fredericksburg area at that time remarked, “Hanging is getting to be as common as hunting.” Suspicion followed by repression bred resentment and defiance, which bred violence… and resistance.

(To be continued …)