Sam Houston has a Texas sized reputation for heroism and statecraft. In the early period of the Texas Republic (1836-1845) Houston largely redeemed a reputation for drunkenness and failure back home in Tennessee with his successful command of the Texan army during its independence struggle from Mexico. With close personal connections to Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party in the US many Anglo Texans hoped Houston’s election as the first president of an independent Texas would make annexation as trouble free as possible. Nonetheless, annexation did not occur for another 9 years but when complete Houston represented Texas as one of its first two Senators, along with Thomas Jefferson Rusk. By the mid 1850s the nation was splitting apart over southern demands to expand slavery. Senator Houston joined Tennessee Senator John Bell in refusing to support the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the only two Southern senators who feared that potentially opening Kansas to slavery would violate the longstanding Missouri Compromise and usher in a federal commitment to abolition, or worst, civil war. This principled stand against southern partisanship prefigured Sam Houston’s failed run as a Unionist for governor of Texas in 1857 and for the Union party’s presidential nomination in 1860 (the nomination went to Bell).
Houston did, however, successfully win a race for governor in 1859 but struggled, and ultimately failed, to hold Texas in the Union. Houston refused to support calls for a secession convention and did not accept Texas’s desire to leave the US. For most Texans today, the Confederacy’s attempt to destroy the US and to preserve, or potentially expand, slavery is politically and morally reprehensible. Sam Houston’s Unionism in the sectional crisis has burnished his reputation today, even if it cost him drastically among southern and Texan nationalists in the 1850s and 1860s.
And yet, long before the sectional crises of the 1850s Sam Houston had already generated a chorus of critics. At home in Tennessee before leaving for Texas Houston had been a garrulous participant in Democrat and Whig contests. In Texas, his early entrance to the state in the 1830s raised concerns that he was a late comer to land speculative ventures or worse, a possible federal agent working on behalf of Cherokee land acquisition to hasten their departure from the US. In fact, as President of Texas Houston did hope to assist the Cherokee, among whom he lived for many years, and this would cause him further problems with acquisitive, land hungry southern emigrants to Texas who coveted lands that Spain, Mexico, and then Houston negotiated for the Cherokee. Many Whigs opposed Houston out of partisanship or for his close relationship to President Jackson, and many land speculators and land-poor emigrants preferred that Texas remain independent of the US because land sold for nearly half as much in Texas; fears that Houston would facilitate annexation raised anxieties about the closing of economic opportunities.
|Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar|
Throughout the 1840s and 1850s a number of politicians struggled against Houston’s outsized popularity to undermine his policies toward Mexico, Native Americans, and the US and they new that his popularity resulted from his heroic deeds in the recent war for independence. It is on these credentials that one of his most vitriolic critics sought to reduce Houston’s popularity in favor of the policies and party of Houston’s first vice president and Texas’s second president, Georgian Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar.
Thomas Jefferson Green (not to be confused with Houston’s Senate colleague mentioned above, T.J. Rusk) graduated from West Point, served in the assembly of his homestate of North Carolina, and then emigrated to Florida where he became aware of land investment opportunities in Mexican Texas. By 1835 Green had relocated with his family to Texas but was swept up in the revolutionary struggle for Texan independence. After a commission as brigadier general he began a campaign of recruitment and provisioning in the US where I believe he missed all the major battles of the war. Nonetheless, after his return in the spring of 1836 he established himself in San Antonio and served in the Texas House and Senate.
In 1842 Mexican forces asserted their nation’s intention to control the territory between the Rio Grande and the Nueces three times by entering the territory, and twice taking control of San Antonio displaying the weakness of Sam Houston’s administration’s capacity for defending Texas’s claims to the valley. Green served in the October 1842 punitive raid to restore Texan authority in the region under the command of AlexanderSomerville. After the taking of Laredo, nearly 1/3 of the force returned home and Somerville declined to invade Mexico and pursue the Mexican forces. About half of Somerville’s remaining forces refused his order to disband and instead of returning to their homes proceeded on to cross the Rio Grande. Green joined this disastrous invasion of Mexico and 176 men were captured, imprisoned, and forced to hard labor. The government ordered the decimation of the unit so 159 white beans and 17 black beans were drawn and the unlucky 17 shot. The remainder of the prisoners was gradually released as Mexico sought to normalize relations with Texas and stave off their impending annexation by the US.
Green escaped prison and returned to Texan politics. The Mier fiasco was the final straw in a long series of grievances that Green felt toward Houston. He dissented when Houston allowed Santa Anna to live after his capture at the April 1836 Battle of San Jacinto which ended the revolution; many like Green wanted Santa Anna’s execution in revenge for the massacres at the Alamo and Goliad. During the first Houston administration from 1836 to 1838 Green and others were frustrated that Houston sought to establish peaceful relations with Mexico, the Comanche, and the Cherokees, particularly by not aggressively claiming and selling lands which Texas could not actually defend to anglo emigrants and land speculators like Green. Green and many others were enthusiastic supporters of a raid to punish Mexico in 1842, no matter how foolhardy, and it was critics of Sam Houston who pressed the offensive after Somerville’s decision to halt at the Rio Grande. And yet, worst of all for Green, when he and his fellow Texans were caught in the Mier expedition Sam Houston proclaimed they had acted without the authorization of the Texas Republic which Green and other believed, accurately, resulted in their hard labor treatment and decimation.
|Frederic Remington, The Drawing of the Black Bean, 1896|
I am always conscious of my good friend John Barr’s advice: if you want to understand acclaimed political leaders, pay attention to what their enemies were saying. And so in the next few posts I will dig deeper into Thomas Jefferson Green’s memoir the Journal of the Texian Expedition Against Mier (1845), It is certainly a politically motivated anti-Houston polemic masquerading as a gripping account of expansive, acquisitive, and anti-Mexican military adventurism on behalf of Manifest Destiny.If you'd like to read Green's memoir it is available here.