Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Cynthia F. Hodges, JD, LLM, MA

“To be honest and fear not is the right path.”
~ Sam Houston’s guiding principle

“I have chosen to wear my leopard skin vest next to my bosom because the scripture says a leopard cannot change his spots.”
Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Samuel Houston was born on March 2, 1793, two days before President George Washington started his second term. Young Sam learned qualities of military leadership and discipline from his father, who had served in the Revolutionary War with General Daniel Morgan’s mounted rifle brigade. Unfortunately, Sam’s father died in 1806, and his mother was forced to sell their farm outside of Lexington, Virginia. The family of nine children moved to Tennessee. They traveled southwestward on the national road for about four weeks covering over 300 miles. On the journey, Sam came into contact with various types of people, religions, races and ethnic backgrounds. Naturally curious and intensely observant, he expanded his knowledge of human nature, and learned to understand, appreciate, and get along with a wide variety of people.

Upon arrival at their new farm in Maryville, Tennessee, Sam learned that a foreign country, the Cherokee Nation, was only five miles away. Seeking escape from the dull life of farming and helping his brothers tend shop, Sam would often sneak away to spend time with the Cherokees. The affinity he felt for the Cherokees was reciprocated: He was adopted by a chief and given the Indian name Colonneh, the Raven. This name was bestowed with honor, for the Cherokee believed that the raven was a mystical bird with magical powers. 

Sam spent his time among the Cherokee memorizing and reciting long passages of the Iliad and other classical literature. He was taught well in the art of public speaking. Native Americans were known for their oratorical skills. This was a skill that was born of necessity, as they did not possess a written language. Sam assimilated the native ways and learned to appreciate their culture. 

At the age of 19, Sam decided to become a schoolteacher despite his lack of a formal education. He filled his classroom, teaching his students the standard reading, writing and arithmetic curriculum. However, he went beyond such basics, instilling in them an appreciation for the Native Americans and their culture. This was contrary to the general consensus among white settlers, which was that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”  Sam taught only one term. His teaching career was interrupted in 1813 by an event of national importance. 

The nation was embroiled in the War of 1812 when the United States regular army came to Maryville in search of recruits. As was the custom, the recruiters put a drumhead in the village square with silver dollars spread out upon it. When a young man picked up a dollar, it meant he was enlisting. At that time, a man had to be 21 to enlist, unless he had his parent’s permission. Sam picked up a silver dollar, but being only 19, he hurried home to his mother exclaiming, “Momma, I want to join the army.” She granted her permission with the provision that “You must promise...to always behave with honor.” She gave him his father’s musket and a gold ring with HONOR engraved on the inside.

Sam was happy to be accepted into the regular army as a private, even though he could have joined the militia or a volunteer unit at a much higher rank. Before long, his skills earned him a promotion to drill sergeant. Before a year was up, he was promoted again to lieutenant. 

By the spring of 1814, the British and their Indian allies were on the warpath, massacring settlers in Alabama. General Andrew Jackson, in charge of the American army, was ordered to quell the uprising. At Horseshoe Bend in northern Alabama, the  enemy had made what they thought to be an impenetrable fort. There, they waited for the Americans to attack. That morning, as the battle raged, Sam took an arrow to his upper thigh near his groin. The arrow took a big chunk of flesh with it when it was pulled out. Sam passed out from the intense pain. He regained consciousness just in time to hear General Jackson call for volunteers to storm the enemy stronghold. Sam, with his wound wrapped in bandages and barely able to hobble, joined the charge. Almost immediately, a bullet tore into his right arm near the elbow and another one slammed into his right shoulder. Realizing he was the only American near the enemy fort, Sam limped back to his compatriots, and forthwith found refuge in unconsciousness. General Jackson took notice of Sam, being duly impressed with his courage and bravery on the battlefield.  

The severity of Sam’s wounds convinced the Army surgeons that he was beyond hope. Paradoxically, the fact that they left Sam to die is probably what saved his life. If they had tried to remove the bullets, particularly from his shoulder, it might have killed him. Sam lingered near death for several months. Slowly, he began to recover and was finally able to return to duty after the war as one of General Jackson’s staff officers at the Hermitage in Tennessee. Unfortunately, Sam’s wounds never healed completely and pained him all his life. 

A couple of years later, Sam was made a representative of the Cherokee to the federal government. He accompanied the Cherokee on a visit to Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. Sam donned Indian garb to make the Cherokee feel more comfortable. Secretary Calhoun severely rebuked Sam for dressing like a “heathen.” Shortly thereafter, Sam was falsely accused of slave trading. He was quickly exonerated at trial, but Calhoun did not offer an apology for trying him, or make any effort to seek out and punish the guilty parties. Sam was outraged. He would not serve under a man who impugned his honor in such a cavalier manner. After investing six years in his military career, Sam resigned his commission.
Sam was faced with finding a new career to support himself. He decided to return to Tennessee and study law. He passed the bar after studying a course of law for only six months, a feat that normally required 18 months of study. He worked as a prosecutor before striking out on his own in private practice. 

Meanwhile, Sam joined the Tennessee militia. He was quickly promoted to colonel, and soon afterward, to major general in command. Sam’s career advancement was aided politically because he was the protégé of Andrew Jackson, who wielded great power in national politics. Under Jackson’s sponsorship, Sam was elected to two terms as United States Representative. Upon his return home, Sam was elected Governor of Tennessee. 
Sam Houston

Many assumed that Sam would follow his mentor’s footsteps into the office of President of the United States. Unfortunately, Sam fell head-over-heels in love with the beautiful, but very young, Eliza Allen (he was 37, while she was only 18). The unwilling Eliza was pressured by her parents to marry Sam.

Their wedding was the social event of the season. Rachel Jackson, Andrew Jackson’s wife, gave Sam and his new bride her silver service.  This gift had been passed down to her from her mother, and was a sign of the esteem and affection held by the Jacksons for Sam. A couple of days after the wedding on their journey to their new home together, they were forced to ride out a snowstorm at the home of some friends. Early one morning, Sam was out playing with the hosts’ young children, who were pelting him relentlessly with snowballs. When the lady of the house suggested to Eliza that she help him, she snapped, “I hope they kill him.” Only three months later, Eliza left him. Sam was desperately heartbroken. In fact, he was so emotionally distraught that he felt he could no longer continue to serve as governor of Tennessee. His principle of fairness prevented him from accepting the benefits of being the governor if he could not serve to the best of his ability.  He resigned his office. 

Sam went to live with the same Cherokee tribe he had stayed with as a youth. This tribe had been forced to follow the Trail of Tears to the Cherokee Strip of Oklahoma. Sam became a nominal Cherokee citizen and married Tiana Rogers, a mixed-breed squaw of high social rank within the tribe and ancestor of Will Rogers. Sam once again acted as an agent for the Cherokee, representing them in Washington, D.C. 

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One day, on the floor of the House of Representatives, the representative from Ohio, William Stansberry, accused Sam of pilfering funds from the Indian allowances. The newspapers picked up the accusation and ran with it. Defending his honor, Sam demanded a retraction and an apology, but Stansberry refused. One afternoon shortly thereafter, while walking with a friend on a public street in Washington, D.C., Sam unexpectedly came upon Stansberry walking a short distance away. Sam ran up to him and demanded an apology, but again, Stansberry refused. Sam started hitting Stansberry on his back and shoulders with his cane. Stansberry drew his pistol, stuck it in Sam’s chest, and pulled the trigger. Luckily, the pistol misfired. Unluckily, Stansberry filed charges against Sam with the House of Representatives. Sam gave a brilliant three-hour oration in defense of his right to retaliate against slander. After a vote of the House members, he was censured by the Speaker. Feeling thwarted, Stansberry filed suit with the D.C. court, which fined Sam 500 dollars. Sam refused to pay because to do so would have been to admit guilt. The fine languished unpaid until Jackson pardoned Sam on his last day in office as President. 

Sam decided to seek his fortune in Texas, because it seemed there was great opportunity there for an ambitious man. Tiana chose to remain with her tribe, so Sam journeyed alone to Texas in his 40th year of life. He started a law practice and began to speculate in land. 

Sam became caught up in the feverish politics of rebellion and signed the Texas Declaration of Independence on his 43rd birthday. He was appointed general of the Texas army, which was composed of mostly farmers and ranchers. Few of them knew much about soldiering, so time was needed to train them. Consequently, General Houston adopted a strategy of delay and retreat. This strategy, “the runaway scrape,” was necessary, but very unpopular. Settlers fled eastward to escape the invading Mexican army, led by President Santa Anna. Sam was put under tremendous public pressure to stop retreating and to stand and fight the Mexicans. He was widely accused of cowardice, even by the provisional president of Texas, David Burnet. Sam refused to stop retreating until he knew that the men were properly trained and ready to fight. He also knew that, by drawing the Mexicans farther away from their supply base, the more likely an opportunity would arise that would favor a Texian victory. Sam was not willing to risk losing one battle because it could mean losing the dream of independence forever. As the Texan army retreated, Sam drilled the soldiers, using the techniques he had learned as an officer in the United States army. 

At San Jacinto, Sam stopped retreating. On April 21, 1836, while the enemy troops confidently took their afternoon siestas, Sam led an unexpected assault on the much larger Mexican forces. The Mexican army was caught unprepared and Santa Anna was caught - literally - with his pants down (he was entertaining the Yellow Rose, his putative bride, in his tent). Sam led the charge, riding his great horse, Saracen, at the front of the Texas line, leading, and encouraging his men. Sam was a conspicuous target for the Mexicans, and caught a bullet that shattered his ankle into more than twenty separate bone fragments. Gangrene soon set in and only a miracle kept him alive. 

The Mexicans fired their cannon at the Texans but could not hit them. The cannon had been damaged in a previous skirmish, so could not be lowered enough to hit the advancing Texans, as they were now too close. The Mexicans had been trained in the European style, which was to stand up close together in rows and to fire and reload upon their officers’ commands. The Texians, however, kept advancing into the crowded Mexican ranks, and after firing, used their guns as clubs. The Mexicans did not know how to fight one on one, so were at a distinct advantage against the Texians, who were no doubt still enraged by the Mexican massacres of their compatriots at the Alamo and at Goliad. The actual battle lasted only 18 minutes, but the slaughter continued until Sam was sure of victory. Several hundred Mexican prisoners were captured.

Santa Anna was captured the next day. Sam leveraged the situation rather than giving into calls to execute the Mexican general. He granted Santa Anna his life in return for his pledge to return to Mexico with his army. 

The Mexican government never granted Texas its independence, but it lacked the power to do anything about it. Texas was free. Sam, the conquering hero, was elected to be the first president of the Republic of Texas. 

One of Sam’s chief objectives as president was to grant the Cherokees, who then lived in East Texas, clear and legal title to their land. The Cherokees had remained neutral in the Texas war for independence, and Sam felt it would be fair and just to reward them for not aligning with the Mexicans. Sadly, his efforts failed with the Texas legislature. 

Prevented by the Texas constitution from succeeding himself as president, Sam sat out the next three-year term while his political opponent, Mirabeau Lamar, was president.   (Lamar took the opportunity to drive the East Texas Indians out of Texas). During this time, Sam served as a representative in the Texas House. Sam was again elected President of Texas in 1841. In his inaugural address of November 25, 1841, Sam proclaimed: 

In promoting the interests of my country, I feel that I am promoting my own individual happiness. All that I have, either in reputation or in property, is in Texas. Texas is my abiding place; this is my home, my nation, the home of my friends… When my country calls, I have ever deemed it my duty and my privilege to peril my life upon the issue of her glory.  

During Sam’s second administration, the Mexicans made two abortive raids on San Antonio in the spring of 1842 and carted some captive Texans back to Mexico. Texans clamored to invade Mexico in retribution, but Sam resisted. He knew that it would be the height of folly to venture into the interior of Mexico. The national legislature passed a bill to invade Mexico, but Sam refused to sign it, thus preventing it from becoming law. In so doing, he cautioned:

To invite an army of 5,000 volunteers into service without means to subsist them would be productive of incalculable injury to the nation. It is an established fact that if subordination and discipline are not maintained, an armed force is more dangerous to the security of citizens and the liberties of a country than all the external enemies that could invade its rights.

For his refusal to attack Mexico, Sam was sharply criticized and even challenged to duels. On one occasion when Sam’s secretary informed him that he had been challenged to yet another duel, he quipped, “Put him on the list and tell him he’s number 16.” Later that year (1842), the citizens of Texas came to their senses. They were grateful that Sam had not risked Texas’ independence by fighting another war with Mexico. 

Sam’s protégé, Anson Jones, succeeded him as president, and Sam re-entered private life as a lawyer and a farmer. During Jones’ administration, Texas accepted an invitation to become the 28th state in the American union. Sam was elected senator to represent Texas in Washington, D.C. In one of his first letters back home to his wife, Margaret, he wrote, “To be a good man, an affectionate husband, a kind parent, a generous master, a true patriot, and to leave my family and the world a spotless reputation comprise all the objects of my earthly ambition.” 

While in the Senate, Sam represented the national welfare more than Texas’ parochial interests. Representing a slave state, while believing strongly in the federal union, created a dilemma for Sam, but he remained faithful in voting according to his principles.  During his tenure as state senator, Texas became deeply embroiled with secessionist sentiments sparked by the slavery issue. Nonetheless, Sam was the only southern senator to vote for the admission of Oregon into the union as a free state, noting that “some northern senators voted to bring Texas into union as a slave state. I’m only returning the favor.” He was also the only southern senator to vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Act stipulated, contrary to the provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, that the territory could be slave if the citizens within the territory so voted. The Act opened the door to bloodshed between abolitionists and slaveholders, and sure enough, Kansas started bleeding soon after the Act passed.

In 1859, Sam ran for governor of Texas and won. He continued his outspoken support of preserving the Union. President-elect Abraham Lincoln wrote to Sam in early 1861 promising to send federal forces to Texas if Sam would agree to help keep Texas in the Union. Sam threw the letter into the fire, fearing that such an act would spark a civil war within Texas. Sam spoke all over the state pleading with Texans to remain loyal to the Union, warning that:

To secede from the Union and set up another government would cause war.  If you go to war with the United States, you will never conquer her. As she has the money and the men. If she does not whip you by guns, powder, and steel, she will starve you to death. It will take the flower of our country, the young men.

The Confederate State of Texas (1861-1865)

In March 1861, Texas voted to secede from the Union. Sam accepted that decision but entreated the citizens to remain independent and to not join the Confederacy. During one memorable speech at the Tremont Hotel in Galveston, he portended:

While I believe with you in the doctrine of states’ rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction…they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.

Despite his warnings, Texas joined the Confederacy. Shortly thereafter, the secessionist-controlled state government ruled that all state officers must sign an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy or be booted out of office. After discussing the decision at great length with his wife, Sam refused to sign the oath. With that, he forfeited his governor’s salary and residence in the governor’s mansion. Sam moved his eight children (ranging in age from infancy to 17) to a rental house, the Steamboat House, in Huntsville, Texas.

Texas’ decision to leave the Union and join the Confederacy broke Sam’s heart, but he adjusted to the existing political situation. When his son, Sam, Jr., joined the Confederate forces, Sam gave his blessing. When Sam inspected Sam Jr.’s unit, the men cheered him on. 

In April 1862, Sam, Jr. was wounded at Shiloh. A few years earlier, while still a United States senator, Sam had voted to allow a delegation of abolition-favoring clergymen to petition the Senate (over the howling objections of other southern senators). A Union chaplain who had been a member of that delegation happened upon Sam, Jr., who lay wounded on the Shiloh battlefield. The chaplain picked up the Bible lying beside Sam Jr., and noticed that the flyleaf read, “To my dear son, Samuel Houston, from his mother.” The chaplain asked if he were the son of former Senator Sam Houston. Sam, Jr. managed a weak “Yes” in reply. The chaplain, in honor of the father, took a personal interest in the son. When Sam, Jr. recovered from his wound, the Union chaplain arranged for him to be exchanged for a Union prisoner. 

Upon his return home in November of 1862, Sam, Jr. was so emaciated that his parents hardly recognized him. He brought with him news of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had not been published in the South. Sam, Sr. gathered up his slaves and set them all free before the Proclamation even took effect (on January 1, 1863).   

In July of 1863, Sam fell ill with a severe cold. He had just turned 70 years old. There, at the Steamboat House, President and General, Senator and Representative, the namesake of Texas’ largest city, uttered his last words, “Texas, Texas, Margaret,” and passed away. 


James P. Hodges, Ph.D.
Website: Leadership by George!

Winner of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge Medal of Honor
Member: National Speakers Association, American Society for Training and Development

More on Sam Houston here

1 comment:

  1. I am curious as to the source of the quote attributed to Sam Houston re: being a good man, an affectionate husband, etc ...


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