1861: Opening Act
In April 1861, the Civil War officially began in faraway South Carolina, where Confederate shore batteries forced the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. In Texas, recruiting began in earnest that spring for mounted riflemen to join the Confederate cause.
At this time, most Southerners believed that Northern demand for cotton would bring the war to a quick end. As a result, these cavalry volunteers were not ordinary men ripped away from their everyday lives but mostly experienced fighting men who could furnish their own guns and horses and did not need training. They were deployed to defend the Indian frontier now that the U.S. Army was gone, to seize federal forts in Indian Territory and link up with Indians allied with the Southern cause, and to support the secessionists in Missouri and Arkansas.
For Texas, the focal point of the war soon became Galveston, a growing, vibrant island port on the Gulf of Mexico. Galveston was the export point for two-thirds of all the cotton in Texas (more than 200,000 bales in 1860), as well as other Texas exports such as sugar and molasses. As a prosperous port city, Galveston boasted luxuries that the frontier parts of Texas could only dream about, such as a railroad bridge to the mainland, gas services to homes, fancy hotels, commercial ice houses, and the Galveston News, the state’s leading newspaper.
Galveston was also the only major business center in Texas, catering to the shipping trade with businesses such as iron foundries and sail and rope manufacturers. It was also home to the largest slave market west of New Orleans. Here African Americans were bought and sold, usually to go work for the large cotton plantations in East Texas. The city had businesses enough to sustain a large professional class of doctors, dentists, and lawyers. It had also become a significant gateway for immigrants into the United States; almost 40 percent of the population was foreign-born.
In the summer of 1861, the Union Navy began a massive effort to blockade the Southern coast to prevent the movement of trade goods, supplies, and arms in and out of the Confederacy. In July, the U.S.S. South Carolina arrived off the coast of Galveston to begin the Union blockade in Texas. This small steamer was almost laughably ineffective in its work, and at this early stage of the war, shipping in Galveston could continue almost as before.
In the meantime, Confederate commanders in Texas began to organize defense works along the coast. Besides Galveston, artillery units did their best to prepare for Union attacks at Sabine Pass, Matagorda Island, Aransas Pass, and Brazos Santiago. Like the Union blockade, these early efforts were marked by poor training and lack of proper equipment.
While most of Texas outside of Galveston might have seemed like the frontier to Easterners, the Indian frontier of Texas was then defined for military purposes as the 400-mile stretch running from Eagle Pass northward to the confluence of the Wichita and Red rivers, and then east along the Red River to Preston Bend. Since Texas annexation in 1845, the responsibility for defending the frontier from Indian attack had rested largely with the U.S. Army. At any given time, a full 25 percent of the army—3,000-3,500 men—was assigned to the Department of Texas. In spite of these impressive numbers, the army proved reluctant to carry out offensive operations against the Indians. When raiding became even worse than usual in 1859 and 1860 in this area that had few slaves, angry Texans believed that the federal government did not care about their suffering. Grievances against the army greatly increased secessionist sentiment.
But however ineffective they might have seemed to frontier Texans, the army had at least provided patrols and some pursuits of raiding war parties. Now, they were gone. As an emergency measure, all counties were ordered by the state to organize minutemen companies. Henry McCulloch, younger brother of Ben and also a famous ranger and Indian fighter, recruited a volunteer regiment of 1,000 mounted riflemen to patrol on the frontier. This force was too small to pursue Indian raiders or launch punitive counterattacks against them. As one of his first acts as governor, Ed Clark petitioned President Jefferson Davis for a Confederate takeover of frontier defense.
It turned out that Clark and Davis disagreed on what constituted an emergency. While Clark had visions of settlers slaughtered and women and children snatched away, Davis thought he should be worrying about Union forces invading Texas from the east or along the coast. Moreover, he wanted 5,000 troops recruited and sent east immediately to join the main Confederate forces. The conflict over frontier defense was to last for the duration of the war.
Although the state was at war, Texas was still a democracy, and 1861 was an election year. Governor Clark was a prominent attorney from Marshall who had flip-flopped several times in the course of his career on the question of states’ rights and slavery. He had sided with Sam Houston on the 1859 ticket and been elected lieutenant governor, only to drift away from Houston and into the secessionist camp. But Clark never convinced the secessionists that he was one of their own. Austin attorney Sebron G. Sneed expressed their sentiments when he noted that Clark did well “considering he was such a fool.”
Clark’s primary challenger was Francis Lubbock, who had been an outspoken secessionist for years. Also in the race was Thomas Jefferson Chambers, an old Texas character who ran a colorful, anti-establishment campaign advocating Texas nationalism. Aside from Chambers’ antics, the campaign was subdued, with both Clark and Lubbock reluctant to bring up divisive issues at a time when unity was critical.
The final result was surprising for its closeness. Clark received few votes outside his native East Texas, but Chambers ran much stronger than expected, especially in the German Hill Country counties. Lubbock emerged the victor by a mere 124 votes out of 57,000 cast.
Page last modified: October 1, 2015