The Civil War in Texas: An Exhibit from the Texas State Library and Archives
Before the War 1860: Big Trouble Secession! 1861: Opening Act Dissent
1862: Fiery Trial 1863: The Tide Turns 1864: No Way Out End of the Ordeal Further Reading

Secession! Texas Makes Its Choice

Houston County petition, November 1860

In the aftermath of Lincoln's election, Governor Houston received dozens of petitions with hundreds of signatures, calling on him to call the legislature into special session to consider the question of separation from the United States. When he refused, he got more petitions as well as letters praising his decision.

BF Speer to Sam Houston, December 1860

Raiding on the Texas Indian frontier had been even worse than usual in 1859 and 1860. This correspondent from Jack County reports that the area is "almost entirely depopulated" from citizens fleeing the violence and asks for more protection. The failure of the U.S. Army to defend against Indian attacks had greatly increased secessionist sentiments in frontier Texas.

As most political observers had predicted, the election of Lincoln caused a stampede for secession across the South. South Carolina seceded by the end of the year, followed in January 1861 by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Texas was not far behind. Governor Houston refused to call the legislature into special session to consider secession, so secessionists simply bypassed him. They staged an unofficial election in early January to elect delegates to a special convention that would consider Texas’ relationship with the federal government. The roster of delegates elected represents a who’s who of the era, including a former governor (Runnels), four future governors, and seven future Confederate generals.

Saying, “The Union is worth more than Mr. Lincoln,” Houston tried to block the convention by hastily calling the legislature into session to declare the election illegal. But Houston had become irrelevant to the onrush of events. The legislature met, validated the convention, and turned its chambers over for the meeting.

On January 28, in the House chamber on the second floor of the Texas Capitol, the Secession Convention got under way. Everyone was conscious of the high drama surrounding the deliberations, though Sam Houston, still working in his first floor office, scornfully referred to the delegates as “the mob upstairs.”

Three days later, on February 1, the delegates passed the Texas Ordinance of Secession by a vote of 166 to 8. They provided for a statewide vote in which Texans would ratify their decision. Knowing the results were a foregone conclusion, they also selected delegates to travel to Montgomery, Alabama, where the Confederate States of America were being established. In the meantime, a Committee of Safety was authorized to seize all federal property in the state, especially the federal arsenal in San Antonio.

Ben McCulloch

Ben McCulloch, a legendary Texas Ranger and Indian fighter, had come to Texas as a youth with David Crockett. In the 1850s he served as a U.S. marshal in East Texas and on a successful peace commission to Brigham Young's Mormons in Utah. Jefferson Davis appointed McCulloch the second-ranking brigadier general in the Confederate Army. In charge of Indian Territory, McCulloch would be killed at Pea Ridge in March 1862.

Prints and Photographs Collection, 1/102-376.

General David E. Twiggs

U.S. General David Twiggs, a Georgian, was sympathetic to the secessionist cause and attempted to avoid bloodshed. He was dismissed from federal service after the surrender of San Antonio and joined the Confederate army, but age and infirmity took his life early in the war.

Courtesy Generals of the American Civil War.

Sam Houston had one last trick up his sleeve. He called up the Texas Ranger force loyal to himself in an attempt to beat the secessionist forces to the federal arsenal. But Houston’s efforts were too little, too late. Ben McCulloch, the famous Indian fighter and Texas Ranger, had already led a force of several hundred secessionist volunteers to San Antonio and forced negotiations with General David E. Twiggs, the commander of U.S. forces in Texas. Twiggs was elderly, sympathetic to the Southern cause, and had no stomach for firing on his fellow Americans. On February 16, he surrendered all military property and army posts in Texas to McCulloch, and agreed to order all 3,000 federal troops in Texas to leave their posts and march to the coast to be evacuated.

Surrender of General Twiggs

This rare ambrotype is believed to depict the surrender of General Twiggs' federal forces to the Confederates in the main plaza in San Antonio on February 16, 1861.

Prints and Photographs Collection, 1/134-11-B.

Sam Houston to C.A. Waite, March 1861

Colonel C.A. Waite of the U.S. Army had been sent to relieve David Twiggs of command, but arrived in San Antonio the morning after Twiggs surrendered the federal arsenal. In this letter, Sam Houston refuses Waite's offer to mobilize U.S. troops to restore him to office. In the end, all Waite could do was evacuate U.S. troops from the state.

One week later, Texas voters overwhelmingly approved the Ordinance of Secession. The Secession Convention reconvened on March 2, Texas Independence Day. The Ordinance became effective on March 5. Since Texas had already been accepted by the Confederacy, all state officers were asked to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederate States of America.

Sam Houston ignored repeated demands that he take the oath. He told his wife, “Margaret, I will never do it.” On March 15, Houston refused a final ultimatum. The convention then declared the office of the governor vacant and swore in Lieutenant Governor Edward Clark as the first Confederate governor of Texas.

President Lincoln was captivated by Houston’s courage and made secret contact with him through intermediaries, offering the old general command of 50,000 troops and the rank of major general if he would lead a force to restore federal control of Texas. Houston refused. Emotionally and physically exhausted at age 68, he told friends that his decision might have been different if he were ten years younger. As things stood, Sam Houston’s day was over. A new and dangerous era was about to begin.

Texas at the Beginning of the War

Texas in 1861 was still a log cabin frontier. Galveston was the only city with paved streets and modern amenities; the only other city of any size was San Antonio, a growing cattle market and mercantile center for immigrants traveling west.

The state’s population stood at 604,000, most of which was concentrated in the cotton country of East and South Texas. Small farmers, often raising corn and pork on a subsistence level, spread out to the north and west from the cotton country. In the western Hill Country, German immigrants were trying to build a utopian community.

About 182,000 Texans were slaves. But even East Texas was far from the Gone With the Wind stereotype of the Old South. Only 21,000 whites in Texas were slaveholders, and about half of these owned three slaves or fewer. Only two men in the entire state had large plantations with more than 200 slaves. Yet these men and other large planters produced 90 percent of the cotton, the dominant crop in Texas. They had an influence on Texas politics far beyond their percentage of the population.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Texas life was its isolation. Travel was extremely difficult. In East Texas, the roads were little better than cowpaths; beyond the east, they were almost nonexistent. The traveler followed in the footsteps of those who had gone before, Indians or animals who had worn faint traces between watering holes.

Nevertheless, thirty-one stagecoach lines operated in Texas, transporting mail, freight, and passengers. Male stagecoach passengers were required to be armed to defend the coach against attack from bandits or Indians, which were frequent and often deadly. They also had to be prepared to get out and repair roads and bridges so the coach could proceed.

There was one thing that travelers from more genteel regions could agree on: Texans were tough, and most of them were poor. They chewed and spit tobacco, went barefoot and ragged, served their meals on cracked and broken crockery, and did battle with fleas, bugs, and snakes. They also impressed most observers as honest, naturally courteous, and kind.

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Page last modified: August 5, 2011