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The builders of the American Commonwealth were all great and individual men, but the most grandly picturesque, the most heroic, figure among them, is that of General Sam Houston. Neither modern history, nor the scrolls of ancient Greece or Rome, can furnish a tale of glory more thrilling and stirring than the epic Sam Houston wrote with sword and pen, as a Conqueror of Tyranny and a Liberator of Men.
His life is a romance, and even his antecedents have the grandeur and glamour of military glory, for his ancestors, as "Sons of Old Gaul," had drawn their long swords in every battle for Scottish liberty, and his own father died while on military duty in the Alleghanies. He had also a mother worthy of the son she bore; a grand, brave woman, who put the musket into his boyish hands with the words, "My doors are ever open to the brave, Sam, but are eternally closed to cowards."
This was in the year 1813, when there was promise of a war with England, and Sam was not then twenty years old--a tall, slender, wonderfully handsome youth, with the air and manner of a prince. But nothing of this bearing was due to schools or schoolmasters, he was not of any man's moulding, although he had been educated for his future in a noble manner. For to escape the drudgery of measuring tape and molasses, he fled to the Indians when but a lad, and was adopted by their chief, and with the young braves he learned to run and leap, and hunt and ride, and find his way through pathless woods with all their skill. This was his practical education; he had only one book for mental enlargement, but this was Pope's translation of "The Iliad." He read and re-read this volume till he could recite it from beginning to end; till the words were living, and the spectral heroes were his friends and companions. So that when he joined General Jackson's battalion, he had the heart of a Greek demi-god and the physical skill and prowess of a Cherokee Indian chief.
He made a glorious record in this war, and, being severely wounded, both by arrows and gunshot, he returned to his home to be nursed by his mother. When he was able to rise again peace was assured and he resolved to become a lawyer. He was told that eighteen months' hard study would be necessary, but in six months he passed a searching examination, and was admitted to the bar of Tennessee with eclat. Then honor after honor came as naturally to him as a tree bears fruit or flower--first Adjutant-General of the State with the rank of Colonel; then District Attorney--Major-General--Member of Congress--Governor of the State of Tennessee. All these places and honors were awarded him by large majorities during a period of nine years. Indeed, between A.D. 1818 and 1827, the records of Tennessee read like some political romance, of which the handsome and beloved Sam Houston was the hero.
This was his second school. He was learning during these years those great principles of government which enabled him afterward to legislate so wisely for the land he conquered. And as soon as he was ready for his destiny, an event happened which drove him back again to the wilderness. Concerning this event no human being has the right to speak authoritatively; it was an affair strictly between himself and his bride of hardly three months. But whatever occurred, shattered his life to pieces. He separated from his wife, resigned his office as governor, and in the presence of a vast and sorrowing multitude, bid adieu to all his friends and honors, and set his face resolutely to his Indian father, who was then king of the Cherokees in Arkansas.
He began, in fact, his journey to Texas, the theatre of the great work for which his previous life had been a preparation. The thought of Texas was not a new one to him. No man had watched the hitherto futile efforts of that glorious land for freedom with greater interest; and there is little doubt that Andrew Jackson was a sharer in all Houston's Texan enthusiasms, and that he also quietly encouraged and aided the efforts for its Americanization. Indeed, at that day Texas was a name full of romance and mystery. Throughout the South and West, up the great highway of the Mississippi, on the busy streets of New York, and among the silent hills of New England, men spoke of the charmed city of San Antonio as Europeans in the eighteenth century spoke of Delhi and Agra and the Great Mogul. French traders went there with fancy goods from New Orleans, and Spanish Dons from the wealthy cities of Central Mexico came there to buy. From the villages of Connecticut, from the woods of Tennessee, and the lagoons of the Mississippi, adventurous Americans entered the Spanish-Texan Territory at Nacogdoches, going through the land buying horses, and lending their stout hearts and ready rifles to every effort for freedom which the Texans made. For though the Americans were few in number and much scattered, they were like the salt in a pottage, and men caught fire and the idea of "freedom" from them.
Texas was at this time a territory of the Empire of Mexico, and Mexico was making constant, though as yet ineffectual, efforts to become independent. Twenty years before Houston entered Texas, a number of Americans joined the priest Hidalgo in his struggle to make Mexico free. They were all shot, but this did not hinder Magee and Bernardo, with 1,200 Americans, raising the standard of liberty two years later. This party took San Antonio, and the fame of their deeds brought young Americans by hundreds to their aid; though they received no money, the love of freedom and the love of adventure being their motive and their reward.
But these brave paladins were soon followed by men who bought land and made homes, and in 1821 Austin, with the sanction of the Spanish Viceroy, introduced three hundred families, who received every reasonable guarantee from the Spanish Government. They were scarcely settled ere there was another Mexican revolt against Spain. This time the Mexicans under Santa Anna achieved the independence of their country, and a Mexican Republic was formed, with a constitution so liberal that it was gladly accepted by the American colonists. But its promises were fallacious. For ten years Santa Anna was engaged in fighting for his own supremacy, and when he had subdued all opposition he had forgotten the traditions of freedom for which he first drew his sword, and assumed the authority of a dictator.
In the meantime the American element had been steadily increasing, and Santa Anna was, not unnaturally, afraid of its growing strength and influence. In order to weaken it, he substituted for the constitution under whose guarantee they had settled, military and priestly laws of the most oppressive kind; and the complaints and reprisals at length reached such a pitch, that all Americans were ordered to deliver up their arms to the Mexican authorities. It was simply an order to disarm them in the midst of their enemies. Now the rifle is to the frontier American a third limb, and in Texas it was also necessary for the supply of food for the family, and vital for their protection from the Indians. The answer to this demand was a notice to Santa Anna posted on the very walls of the Alamo Fortress:
"If you want our arms--take them! Ten thousand Americans." This was a virtual declaration of war, but the American Texans were by no means unprepared for the idea, nor yet for its translation into practice.
Austin--who had been sent with a remonstrance to Santa Anna--was in the dungeons of the Inquisition in Mexico; but Houston, Lamar, Burleson, Burnet, Bowie, Crockett, Sherman, and many another name able to fire an army, were on the ground. Besides which, the sympathy of the whole land was with the little band of heroes. For the idea of Texas had been carried in the American heart for two generations. As far back as 1819, President Adams had wanted Texas, and Henry Clay would have voted three millions for it. Van Buren told Poinsett to offer five millions. Jackson added an additional half-million for the Rio Grande territory; but Jackson had more faith in Houston and the American settlers in Texas than in money. His brave old heart was on fire for the wrongs and cruelties inflicted by Santa Anna on his countrymen; and he was inclined to make Mexico give Texas as an atonement for the insults offered them. There is little doubt that the defiance posted on the walls of the Alamo thrilled him with a similar defiance, and that he instinctively put his hand on the spot where he had been used to wear his sword.
The first step of the American-Texans was to set a civil government in motion. Declarations and manifestoes had to be made, and loans raised in order to maintain an army in the field. There were many fine fighters, but Houston was the only statesman; and to him the arduous duty naturally fell. In the meantime Lamar and Burleson with 200 picked men attacked the Alamo Fortress. It was defended by General Cos with 1,000 men and forty-eight cannon; but on the afternoon of the third day's fighting surrendered to the Americans. This was but the first act in the drama, for as soon as the news reached Mexico, Santa Anna with a large "army of subjugation" was on the road to Texas.
The Alamo was taken by the Americans during the first day of December, 1835; on March 2, 1836, Texas was declared by the Convention assembled at the settlement of Washington, to be an independent republic, and 55 out of 56 votes elected Houston commander in chief. Houston immediately set out for the Alamo, but when he reached Gonzales he heard that every man in it had died fighting, and that Santa Anna had made a huge hecatomb of their bodies and burned them to ashes. Houston immediately sent an express to Fannin, who was defending Goliad, to blow up the fortress of Goliad, and unite with him on the Guadalupe. Fannin did not obey orders. He wrote to Houston that "he had named the place Fort Defiance, and was resolved to defend it." This decision distressed Houston, for Fannin's men were of the finest material--young men from Georgia and Alabama, fired with the idea of freedom and the spread of Americanism, or perhaps with the fanaticism of religious liberty of conscience. After reading Fannin's letter, Houston turned to Major Hockley, and said, as he pointed to the little band of men around him, "Those men are the last hope of Texas; with them we must achieve our independence, or perish in the attempt."
He immediately sent wagons into all the surrounding country to gather the women and the children, for he anticipated the atrocities which would mark every mile of Santa Anna's progress through the country; and he was determined that these helpless non-combatants should be placed in comparative safety in the eastern settlements. Then commenced one of the grandest and most pathetic "retreats" history has any record of. Encumbered by hundreds of women and children in every condition of helplessness, the bravery, tenderness, and patience of these American soldiers is as much beyond credence as it is beyond praise. The whole weeping, weary company were to guard, and to forage for; yet the men were never too weary to help mothers still more exhausted, or to carry some child whose swollen feet could no longer bear its weight. On this terrible march many children were lost, many died, and many were born; and the whole company suffered from deprivations of every kind.
On March 23d Houston wrote to General Rusk, "Before my God, I have found the darkest hours of my life! For forty-eight hours I have neither eaten nor slept!" And just at this time came the news that Fannin with 500 men had been massacred, after fighting until their ammunition gave out, and surrendering as prisoners of war under favorable terms of capitulation. This news was answered by a passionate demand for vengeance, and Houston, gathering his men around him, spoke words which inspired them with an unconquerable courage. His large, bright face, serious but hopeful, seemed to sun the camp, and his voice, loud as a trumpet with a silver tone, set every heart to its loftiest key.
"They live too long," he cried, "who outlive freedom, and I promise you a full cup of vengeance!" But in words not to be gainsayed, he told them they must put their women and children in safety first of all. Then he explained the advantages they were gaining by every mile they made the enemy follow them--how the low Brazos land, the unfordable streams, the morasses, and the pathless woods were weakening, separating, and confusing the three great bodies of Mexicans behind. He declared the freedom of Texas to be sure and certain, and bid them prepare to achieve it.
When they arrived at Harrisburgh they found Santa Anna had burned the place. It was evident then, that the day and the hour was at hand. Houston transported the two hundred families he had in charge across the Buffalo Bayou, which was twenty feet deep, and the very home of alligators. He then destroyed the only bridge across the dangerous stream, and wrote the following letter, now in the archives of the Texas Republic:
"This morning we are in preparation to meet Santa Anna. We will only be about seven hundred to march, besides the camp guard. But we go to conquest. The troops are in fine spirits, and now is the time for action. I leave the results in the hands of an all-wise God, and I rely confidently in His Providence.
Both armies were on the field of San Jacinto, and Santa Anna had with him nearly two thousand men, against the 700 with General Houston. Houston advanced to the attack at three o'clock in the afternoon, with the war cry of "Remember the Alamo!" It was taken up by 700 men with such a shout of vengeance as mortal ears never heard before. With it on their lips they advanced close to the Mexican lines, while a storm of bullets went over their heads. Houston and his horse were both wounded, but both being of the finest metal, they pressed on regardless of wounds. The Americans did not answer the volley until they could pour their lead into the bosoms of their foes. They never thought of reloading, but clubbing their rifles until they broke, they then flung them away, and fired their pistols into the very eyes of the Mexicans. When nothing else remained, they drew their bowie knives and cut their way through the walls of living flesh.
Nothing comparable to that charge for freedom was ever made. Men said afterward that the unseen battalions--the mighty dead as well as the mighty living--won the battle. "Poor Fannin!" exclaimed General Sherman, "he has been blamed for disobeying orders; but I think he obeyed orders to-day!" Men fought like spirits, impetuous, invincible, as if they had cast off flesh and blood. The battle began at three o'clock in the afternoon of April 21, 1836, and after the Americans reached the Mexican line, it lasted just eighteen minutes. At four o'clock the whole Mexican army was flying, and the pursuit and slaughter continued until dark. It was a military miracle, for the American loss was only eight killed and seventeen wounded. Of the Mexicans, 630 were left dead on the field; multitudes perished in the bayou and morass; and there were nearly eight hundred prisoners. Only seven men are known to have escaped either death or capture. Santa Anna was found hiding in coarse clothing, and Houston had the greatest difficulty to save his life. For Houston knew that the lives of all the Americans in Mexico were in danger, besides which, he was needed to secure the peace and independence of Texas. It required Houston's influence, however, to convince men whose fathers and brothers and sons had been brutally massacred at Goliad and the Alamo, that their private vengeance must give way to the public good.
Just about the time that the battle of San Jacinto was fought, President Jackson was one day found by Mr. Buchanan studying earnestly the map of Texas. He was tracing Houston's plan of retreat--of which he had doubtless received information--and putting his finger upon San Jacinto he said, "Here is the place! If Sam Houston is worth one bawbee, he will make a stand here, and give them a fight!" A few days after this declaration, news was received in Washington that the fight had been given and won on that very spot.
The annexation of Texas was now publicly, as it had long been privately, the hope and goal of the Government; and for this end Jackson, says Mr. Parton, "displayed an energy and pugnacity seldom exhibited before or since, by a politician in his seventy-seventh year." But "failure" was a word not in Jackson's vocabulary; he annexed Texas, and dying as the measure was accomplished, talked only in his last moments of Texas and Houston.
Houston was elected President of the new Republic by acclamation, and he served the State two terms in this capacity. Both were marked by the finest statesmanship; and during them the Texans suffered little from the ferocious Apache, Comanche, and other Indian tribes. For Houston fearlessly slept in their camps, and treated them as brethren; and his Indian "Talks" have an Ossianic poetry about them. Thus he writes to the Indian Chief Linney: "The red brothers know that my words to them have never been forgotten by me. They have never been swallowed up in darkness, nor has the light of the sun consumed them. Truth cannot perish, but the words of a liar are as nothing. Talk to all the red men, and tell them to make peace. War cannot make them happy. It has lasted too long. Let it now be ended and cease forever," etc., etc.
After the annexation of Texas, Houston represented the State for three terms in the United States Senate; but in 1859 he failed of re-election, because he refused to go with the South on the fatal subject of Secession. Yet so great was the confidence of the people in his honor and ability, that they elected him Governor of Texas in the same year; and he entered on the office in December, 1859. The election of Mr. Lincoln in 1860 precipitated events; and though Houston used all his mighty personal influence, and all his charmful, potent eloquence to keep Texas in the Union, he failed, and was deposed from the Governorship on his refusal to sign the Ordinance of Secession.
Then he calmly withdrew from the scene, and there are many living who remember his pathetic parting words. "I have seen," he said, "the statesmen and patriots of my youth gathered to their fathers, and the government which they had reared rent in twain, and none like them are now left to reunite it again. I stand almost the last of a race who learned from them the lessons of human freedom!"
These events inflicted a mortal wound upon his great spirit, and when he heard the roar of the cannon announcing the secession of Texas, he turned to his wife and said, "My heart is broken!" The words were only too true; for two years he lingered a sad and solemn old man, mourning for the woes of his country and for the defection of his eldest son Sam, who had joined the Confederates, and been taken prisoner by the Northern army. He was also suffering from the wounds received both in the war of 1812 and also at San Jacinto; and it was evident that he had come to the close of life. He himself looked forward to the event without fear, and with a wise and well-grounded hope.
On March 2, 1863, Houston was seventy, and in response to an ovation in his own city of Houston, he made a short, broken little speech. It was his last public effort, and from it he went back home to Huntsville, to die. His last days were spent in incessant and heart-broken prayers for his country and for his family; and on July 26, 1863, three weeks after the fall of Vicksburg, he breathed his last to the words "Texas! Texas!"
So honestly and unselfishly had this great man lived that he died in poverty, needing many comforts; this hero, who by his valor and statesmanship had increased the territory of the United States by more than eight hundred thousand square miles, or about the equivalent of the thirteen original States! But the splendor of his name is not to be touched by such an accident as poverty; to the people of Texas, Houston will ever be a beloved memory; and on the Roll of Fame he shines forth, the noblest, the most princely, the most picturesque and chivalrous character in American history.