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Sam Houston Returns?: Two Letters from Texas Secessionists in 1863

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 4, April 2014
pp. 404-409 | 10.1353/swh.2014.0048

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Sam Houston in a daguerreotype by Matthew Brady from between 1848 and 1850. From the Daguerreotype Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Although removed from the governor’s chair in March 1861 for refusing to take a loyalty oath to the new Confederate States of America, Sam Houston nevertheless remained a force to be reckoned with in Texas politics. Even after Texas joined the Confederacy, his image as an unbowed Unionist—whether actually true or only perceived—remained a specter that haunted his political foes who had ardently embraced secession. After two years of fighting and mounting odds against an ultimate Confederate victory, Texas secessionist leaders were apprehensive that Unionism was reviving as war-weary citizens were becoming increasingly nervous about American Indian threats on the frontier. Suspicions grew that a reconstruction movement was underway that would coalesce around the former governor if he decided to raise his banner and reenter the political arena. Should Houston regain the governorship, his opponents feared, he would mobilize the state’s latent Unionism to effect an immediate break with the Confederacy and throw Texas open to Federal occupation forces. Houston therefore had to be marginalized, and in the spring of 1863 several Confederate leaders privately floated ideas how to undermine his enduring public esteem.

Letters sent to Texas Senator Louis T. Wigfall, a die-hard secessionist, provide insight as to how a possible Houston return to the governorship might be undercut. If well-respected newspapers outside Texas revived tales of Houston’s past Union sentiments and paraded them before the public, then pro-Confederate forces within the state could reprint them and escape the charge of attacking the old hero directly yet still plant doubts about his loyalty and shadowy intentions. Wigfall himself was invited to be the secret ringleader of this strategy to destroy any chance of Houston’s political resurrection.

Both of Wigfall’s correspondents were Texas newspapermen, hard-bitten secessionists, and long-standing Houston critics. The first, Willard Richardson (1802–75) was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, but migrated at age sixteen to Charleston, South Carolina, and then on to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, before relocating to Texas to work as a surveyor. In 1844 he became editor of the Galveston News and became known for his militant anti-abolitionism, advocacy for reopening of the slave trade, and passionate pro-secessionist views.1 The second writer, Harris A. Hamner (1827–76), was born in South Carolina, but he also arrived in Texas in the 1840s after a stint in Alabama. In 1856 he moved to Jacksboro where, alongside John R. Baylor and Isaac Worrall, he became a co-editor of the White Man, which fiercely advocated Indian removal, attacked Houston’s frontier policies, and heartily promoted secession.2 When Texas seceded, Hamner was one of the first to organize state troops and urge a clamp down on all dissent, reviling one hanged Unionist as having “got on the Abe Lincoln-Sam Houston platform” and advocating that all others like him suffer the same fate.3

While never as widespread as Texas Confederate leaders feared, Union sentiments and rumors of secret loyalist societies had been strong enough to spark an outbreak of public hysteria in the fall of 1862, resulting in mass hangings of suspected conspirators. By summer 1863, with Union armies astride most of the Mississippi River, Texas Confederates faced the additional difficulty of maintaining contact with their legislators in Richmond; while attempting to skirt enemy lines, Hamner and Richardson’s letters were captured by federal forces commanded by General Nathaniel P. Banks, who forwarded their content to Washington. What these letters implied seemed to support what Texas exiles had been telling the Lincoln Administration for two years; that there was significant Unionism in the Lone Star State, and whose adherents eagerly awaited the arrival of Federal forces.4 General Banks’s cover letter enclosed copies of the intercepted correspondence:

Department of the Gulf
New Orleans. May 19/63

Major General Halleck
Commander in Chief U.S.A.
Washington D.C.

Enclosed are two letters of a public nature, intercepted on their way to Richmond at Simmesport and are interesting and doubtless authentic as...

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