Lone Star Nation by H. W. Brands
This book by Brands has a great deal in common with the one I read on California a few months ago. The politics of admitting both Texas and California to the Union became a battleground for the slavery issue, as did, I presume, the political history of every other state admitted in the decades before the Civil War. Texas and California were just bigger and destined to be influential. I was disappointed when the California book left the gold rush—which was my primary interest in reading it—and got into the politics of slavery, but I ended up interested enough to think those decades before the Civil War were a lot more interesting than I’d assumed.
Lone Star Nation doesn’t get to the slavery issue until the end, after Texas won its independence and sought to join the Union. Then former president John Quincy Adams led the opposition to Texas statehood on the grounds that it would be a backward stop to admit such a big state as a slave state. Adams was also offended, on moral grounds, that Texas had admitted slave owners with their slaves—illegally—even as a part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. (Mexico had outlawed slavery in the 1820s.) I had not known that the last public act of Sam Houston, then governor of the state of Texas, was to refuse to sign the papers officially transferring Texas to the Confederacy. He resigned and died before the Civil War was over and slavery defeated and the Union restored.
Brands’ story is a heroic one—rag-tag settlers, mostly from the US, who tried to get along as a state of Mexico but failed. Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Texas, tried very hard to make Texas work as a Mexican state and before joining those agitating for complete independence from Mexico had advocated Texas statehood within Mexico separate from Coahuila. At one point he spent a year in Mexico City trying to move the government on behalf of Texas and when he returned in a last ditch effort to negotiate a deal with Mexico, he was imprisoned as the traitor he wasn’t at the time—but would become.
The story of defeat and death at the Alamo and Goliad were familiar from an earlier read; Houston’s victory at San Jacinto is familiar because I’ve visited the battlefield and memorial many times and knew at least the barebones of the story. I enjoyed reading about the heroics of men who had been before only the names of downtown streets.
Brands perpetrates the legend of ragtag and fiercely independent Texans. Houston’s army had no discipline at all, though Houston was trained under Andrew Jackson and knew something about military discipline. He wanted to fight a defensive war with Santa Anna’s superior forces (and he had ordered the abandonment and destruction of the Alamo), but his men made their own decisions, first to defend the Alamo and then forcing his hand at San Jacinto.
One scene I had not known about though was the mass exodus of the civilian population that spring of war. Following the defeats at the Alamo and Goliad, settlers—often just wives and children—sought to leave, bunched up on the roads, abandoning goods and vehicles that couldn’t deal with the roads and piling up trying to cross first the flood-swollen Trinity and then the Sabine. Knowing something of “evacuation” from recent hurricanes I was duly horrified at their predicament.
I didn’t grew up in Texas but one thing I’ve learned from living here is that Texas is proud of being the only state that was once an independent nation, but that’s really twisting history. The years after victory at San Jacinto which ended the fighting and sent the army back to Mexico were years of trying to get adopted by the American union and treating with other countries (particularly Britain) in case that did not work out. And while Santa Anna, the President when he led the Mexican army to Texas, but soon deposed when he was captured, was willing to recognize Texas independence, official Mexico was not. The tensions led the Mexican war which finally paved the way for Mexico to recognize the annexation of Texas to the United States as well as to cede California and New Mexico. That’s the next period I need to read up on….