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Sam Houston, Texas Secession — and Robert E. Lee

No secession ball will mark the day. But 150 years ago today, on Feb. 1, 1861, a state convention voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Union, against the fervent wishes of Gov. Sam Houston. Caught in the mess was one Robert E. Lee, a federal officer in what had become a rebel state.

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No secession ball will mark the day. Nor, it appears, are any other commemorative events planned by Texas, which would rather boast of its time as an independent country. But 150 years ago today, shortly after 11 a.m. on Feb. 1, 1861, a state convention voted overwhelmingly to secede from the Union.

In Austin, on the second floor of the old Texas statehouse just south of the current Capitol building (near the present-day Alamo and Texas Rangers monuments), cheering delegates to the special convention approved a short document declaring that the federal government was becoming "a weapon with which to strike down the interests and prosperity of the people of Texas and her Sister slaveholding States." Texas, they stated, was henceforth a "separate Sovereign state ... absolved from all allegiance to the United States." (An even more explicit "declaration of causes" followed a day later; it's well worth a read.)

For one aging veteran in the hall, this was the blackest of days. Sam Houston, the 67-year-old governor of Texas (who had twice served as president of the Republic of Texas), had for years almost single-handedly kept secessionist sentiment in the state at bay, despite being a slaveholder himself. Nearly three decades earlier, Houston had fought for Texan independence from Mexico and guided the fledgling Republic into the Union. He did not want to lose his life's work. "Mark me, the day that produces a dissolution of this [Union] will be written in the blood of humanity," Houston, then a U.S. senator, told Congress in 1854 as he defied Southern predilections to vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Of himself, he had said: "I wish no prouder epitaph to mark the board or slab that may lie on my tomb than this: 'He loved his country, he was a patriot; he was devoted to the Union.'"

As secessionist fever swept Texas, Houston was denounced as a "traitor-knave" for his Unionist views. Always, though, when the grand old man — who still hobbled from a wound sustained at San Jacinto in 1836 — took the stage, he had been able to quell his rivals. But as the year 1860 drew to a close, with Abraham Lincoln's election causing South Carolina to secede and other states to teeter on the brink, Houston, despite being governor, could no longer hold back the tide.

He tried. When secessionists began clamoring for a special legislative session in anticipation of secession, Houston stalled. Soon, however, a secession convention at the end of January 1861 appeared inevitable. Houston convened a special session of the Legislature just before the convention, hoping that he could somehow persuade lawmakers to rein in the proceedings.

It was not to be. The delegates — chosen in a hastily organized election in early January — convened in Austin on Jan. 28, 1861, and quickly penned a document that would sever Texas' ties to the federal government. Houston was invited to the roll call on Feb. 1. He sat "grim and motionless," writes his biographer M.K. Wisehart. One man called him a traitor to his face, though Houston's allies swiftly demanded (and received) an apology. The delegates approved the secession ordinance, 166-8.

The governor won a few concessions, however. He had said he would swallow secession if the people ratified it — so it was put to a vote on Feb. 23, 1861, and the people affirmed it, 44,317 to 13,020. Houston tried to argue that Texas voters had merely approved secession, rather than latching onto the Confederacy. This was technically true, but the governor, who preferred that Texas should return to its old status as an independent country, had lost his sway. In March, Texas became the last state to join the Confederacy in the "first wave," before hostilities broke out at Fort Sumter.

A defiant Houston would swear no oath to the Confederacy, and he was finished as governor. "Fellow citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath," he declared on March 16, 1861. "In the name of the nationality of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. …" Nor would he live to see the end of the war he tried so hard to avert; he died in 1863, a year after the Battle of Shiloh, in which his son, Sam Jr., a Confederate soldier, was wounded and held prisoner for months. Texas, in fact, would become the site of the last battle of the Civil War, in May 1865. It was also the last rebel state readmitted to the Union, on March 30, 1870, subject to several conditions.

There is another peculiar post-script to the secessionist drama of 1861.

Oddly enough, one Robert E. Lee was living in Texas at that time. Lee had been stationed in Texas on and off for several years, commanding the Second United States Cavalry in frontier skirmishes against Comanches and Mexicans. He didn't seem too fond of the frontier life; he wrote to his wife of living of a "desert of dullness."

With war approaching, Lee received orders summoning him back to Washington, so he departed Fort Mason, in Mason County, on Feb. 13, 1861, for the journey east. But in San Antonio, Lee was waylaid. A federal general from Georgia, who had taken over Lee's Texas responsibilities, had just cheerfully surrendered his men and supplies to Texas rebels who had ridden out to San Antonio (Sam Houston had dispatched the Texas Rangers to try to prevent this, but they did not arrive in time). So Lee, as a federal army officer, was potentially a prisoner in a state (or country) that was preparing for war with the federal government.

Lee donned civilian garb, reminded the Texans he was a Virginian, and was ultimately allowed to proceed (though he was apparently quite provoked by the Texans, who tried unsuccessfully to get him to declare allegiance to the South then and there). He got back to his home in Arlington on March 1 — and little more than a month later, took a command in the Confederate army.

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