Published on Friday, December 16, 2011
Hero of Texas
By Janett L. Grady
American soldiers were and are all great and individual men and women, but the most grandly picturesque, the most heroic figure of them all, was that of General Sam Houston. Neither modern history, nor even the scrolls of ancient Greece or Rome, can furnish a tale of glory more thrilling and stirring than the epic Sam Houston wrote with pen and sword, as a conqueror of tyranny and a liberator of men.
Of Scottish heritage, Houston was born in Tennessee, born of a woman worthy of the son she bore, a grand, brave woman who one day put a musket into his boyish hands with the words, "My doors are ever open to the brave, Sam, but are eternally closed to cowards." Perhaps that's why Sam Houston lived a life of romance, glamor and grandeur, an inspiration to all who knew of him.
Houston was educated for his future in a noble manner. As a boy, he spent most of his time with the Indians in the hills, and he learned to hunt and ride and to find his way through pathless woods with all their skill. But Houston also had a book, Pope's translation of The Iliad, and he read and reread this volume until the words were living and the spectral heroes were his friends and companions.
In 1813, Houston joined General Andrew Jackson's battalion in a war with England, and Houston fought with the skill and prowess of a seasoned veteran of combat. Severely wounded by arrow and gunshot, Houston returned home to his mother, who nursed him with gentle care and strong resolve.
When he was able to rise, Houston resolved to become a lawyer. He was told that eighteen months of hard study would be necessary, but in six months he passed a searching examination and was admitted to the bar of Tennessee.
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, and Governor of Tennessee. All these positions and honors were awarded him by large majorities during a period of nine years. Indeed, between 1818 and 1827, the records of Tennessee read like some political romance novel, of which the handsome and beloved Sam Houston was the hero.
What happened next in Sam Houston's life, no detailed historical record exists. It was an affair strictly between himself and his bride of less than ninety days. Whatever happened shattered his life. He separated from his wife, resigned his office as governor, and in the presence of a vast and mournful multitude, bid farewell to all his friends and honors, and set face resolutely to his Indian friends in the hills.
He began, in fact, his journey to Texas, the theater of the great work for which his previous years had been a preparation.
Texas was at this time a territory of the Republic of Mexico, and Mexico was making constant effort to become independent of Spain.
The thought of Texas was not a new one to Sam Houston. 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. From the villages of Connecticut, the lagoons of Mississippi, and from the wilderness of Tennessee, adventurous Americans were entering the Spanish Territory, going through the land building farms and raising cattle.
In 1821, with the sanction of the Spanish Viceroy, three hundred American families were given every reasonable guarantee to be left alone to their prosperity. They were scarcely settled, though, when there was more 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 acceptable to the Americans.
But this constitution meant little to Santa Anna, who for years fought for his own supremacy, and by the time he had subdued all opposition, he had forgotten the tradition of freedom for which he had first drawn his sword. He assumed the authority of a dictator.
Meanwhile, the American presence had been steadily increasing in number and influence, and Santa Anna was afraid of its growing strength. To weaken it, he decreed laws of the most oppressive kind. Faced with complaints and reprisals, he ordered that all Americans were to give up their arms to the Mexican authorities.
The American response was a notice to Santa Anna posted on the very walls of the Alamo Fortress in San Antonio: IF YOU WANT OUR ARMS, TAKE THEM! This was a declaration of war
On December 1, 1835, the Americans took the Alamo Fortress.
This seizure was but the first act in the drama, for as soon as the news reached Mexico, Santa Anna was on the march with an "army of subjugation."
Meanwhile, on March 2, 1836, an assemblage in Washington-on-the-Brazos declared Texas to be an independent republic, and 55 out of 56 votes elected Sam Houston Commander-in-Chief.
Receiving word of his election, Houston set out for the Alamo with an army of volunteers. Reaching Gonzales, message arrived that every American at the Alamo Fortress had been slaughtered.
Houston assembled his men, turned to one of his officers, and said, as he pointed to the small army around him: "These men are the last hope of Texas...with them we must achieve our independence, or perish in the attempt."
Anticipating the atrocities which would mark every mile of Santa Anna's march through Texas, Houston then asked of his men a task unequaled in the history of warfare. Houston sent his army in wagons to gather the women and children, determined that these noncombatant Americans would be taken away to comparative safety.
Encumbered by hundreds of women and children in every condition of helplessness, the bravery, tenderness, and patience of these American soldiers was as much beyond believability as it was beyond praise. Houston's men were to guard, to forage for...and yet these 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. No record exists of braver, more compassionate and caring men.
On March 23, 1836. Houston wrote a letter to one of his volunteers: "Before my God, I have found the darkest hours of my life. For forty-eight hours, I have neither eaten nor slept!" But neither had his army.
Then came news of a massacre.
American soldiers, 500 men, had surrendered as prisoners of war under favorable terms of capitulation. They were slaughtered.
Houston, gathering his tired men around him, spoke words which inspired them with an unconquerable courage. His large, bright face, serious but hopeful, seemed to sun the encampment, and his voice, loud as a trumpet, set every heart to its loftiest key. "They live too long," Houston cried, "who outlive freedom, and I promise you a full cup of vengeance!" But in words not recorded, he told his men they must first put their women and children in safety.
Houston's army of volunteers then transported the hundreds of women and children to the safer side of a treacherous swamp, which was twenty feet deep and the home of deadly snakes and hungry alligators. Houston ordered the only bridge across to be destroyed. The women and children safe, Houston and his volunteers marched off to battle.
The armies met on a field of San Jacinto. Santa Anna had with him nearly 1,600 men, against the 700 with General Houston.
Houston advanced to the attack at 3 o'clock in the afternoon of April 21, 1836, and after the Americans reached the Mexican line, the battle lasted just 18 minutes. At 4 o'clock, the Mexican soldiers were running, and the pursuit and slaughter continued until dark.
It was a military miracle, but record of the battle speaks for itself.
With the war cry of "Remember the Alamo" on their lips, Houston's volunteers advanced close to the Mexican line, while a storm of bullets went over their heads and into their ranks. Houston, and his horse, were hit, but both pressed on. The Americans did not answer the volley until they could pour lead into the bosoms of their foes. The Americans 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 Mexican soldiers. When nothing else remained, they drew their knives and swords and cut their way through the walls of living flesh.
Of the Mexicans, 630 were left dead on the field, about 160 are presumed to have perished in the treacherous swamp, and nearly 800 were captured and held as prisoners of war. Only seven men are known to have escaped either death or capture.
Records show, too, that only eight American soldiers were killed.
Santa Anna was found hiding, and General Houston had the greatest difficulty saving him from the wrath of the American soldiers. But save him he did. The enemy had surrendered, and Sam Houston was not a murderer.
Nine years after the battle of San Jacinto, the annexation of Texas became a reality. Houston was elected President of this new Republic by acclamation...and he served two terms in this capacity, both marked by the finest statesmanship. During these terms of service, Texans suffered little from the ferocious Apache, Comanche, and other Indian tribes, because Sam Houston fearlessly slept in their camps and treated them as brethren.
Sam Houston represented Texas in the United States Senate, serving from 1845 to 1859. In 1859, he failed in his bid for continued service because he had refused to go along with the South on the fatal subject of Secession. Yet so great was the confidence of the people in his honor and ability, they elected him Governor of Texas in the same year..and he entered office in December, 1859.
The election of Lincoln in 1860, however, 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.
Sam Houston calmly withdrew from the scene, but not without some 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!" When Houston heard the roar of the cannon announcing the secession of Texas, Houston turned to his wife and said, "My heart is broken."
On March 2, 1863, Houston was seventy, and in response to an ovation in the city which bore his name, he made a short, broken little speech. It was his last public effort, and from it he went to his home in Huntsville to die.
Houston's last days were spent in incessant and heart-broken prayers for his beloved Texas. On July 26, 1863, he breathed his last to the words, "Texas... Texas!"
So honestly and unselfishly had this great man lived that he died in poverty. This hero, who by his valor, his compassion and his statesmanship had increased the territory of the United States by more than 800,000 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... indeed, to the people of America, Sam Houston will forever be a beloved memory. On the Roll of Fame, Sam Houston shines forth, the noblest, the most princely, the most picturesque and chivalrous character in American History.
Janett L. Grady is a senior citizen who lives and writes with her husband in Palmer, Alaska.