Setting the Stage
The 2nd US Cavalry was one of the first units in the Army to be affected by the secession movement. This article will attempt to chronicle their abrupt exodus from Texas in early 1861, long before the fall of Fort Sumter. In order to understand the trials faced by the regiment during this period, it is necessary to first understand the larger situation.
The majority of the fault for the regiment’s abrupt departure unfortunately lays at the foot of another cavalryman, former Second Dragoon commander Brevet Major General David E. Twiggs. In December of 1860, General Twiggs returned from a leave of absence to command of the Department of Texas. He was second in seniority of the four brigadier generals in the Army, junior only to Brigadier General Wool.
The Texas secession convention assembled in January 1861. On February 1, the ordinance of secession was adopted by the convention, subject to its ratification by the people of Texas on February 23rd. On the 4th, before its ratification, the convention appointed a commission to discuss with General Twiggs the surrender of all army installations and equipment within the borders of the state. Twiggs in his turn appointed a commission to negotiate with the Texas commission. On February 15th, officials demanded the immediate surrender of all government property in the state, which he refused. On the 18th, he was again presented with the demand, and given six hours to return a decision. Citing the desire to avoid fighting between state and national troops, Twiggs ordered all soldiers in the state to surrender their posts and march to the coast.
While he is consistently vilified for his role in the surrender, there are a few factors to consider in the conduct of Twiggs. In the interest of fairness, he had on three different occasions formally requested guidance from Washington on actions to take in the event of Texas’ secession. The guidance he received in return was minimal and vague. He had also asked to be relieved of command of the department on January 13, 1861. Once the request reached the capital, Colonel C. A. Waite was sent to replace him. Twiggs had not, however, been authorized to surrender any government installations or equipment, particularly without a shot being fired. He was dismissed from the army by President Lincoln on March 1st for “treachery to the flag of his country.” He was subsequently appointed a general in the Confederate army, which rank he held until his death the following year.
The Department of Texas at this time contained one fifth of the entire army, including the 2nd Cavalry. Department headquarters was in San Antonio, but the troops were scattered across twenty or more small posts consisting of 50 to 150 men throughout the state. These posts varied in distance from San Antonio from 50 to almost 700 miles, and were commanded by lieutenants or captains.
At the time of the surrender, Twiggs issued an ‘Order of Exercises’ to the various units of the department, detailing the order and routes of their movements out of the state. This order required all commanders to evacuate their posts, surrendering all public property not required to transport them to the coast. Following this, they were to concentrate at Green Lake and surrender any remaining equipment with the exception of their sidearms. The troops were to move to the coast in a directed schedule by small units, with the most distant posts instructed to move first to prevent a troop concentration in the northern part of the state. As he was still the department commander at the time, his order was binding on the army’s officers, despite their feelings on it.
The order came at a particularly bad time for the 2nd Cavalry, as none of the regiment’s senior leadership was present for duty. The regimental commander, Colonel Albert S. Johnston, was in San Francisco serving as the commander of the Department of California. Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee had been ordered to report to Washington DC earlier in the month to meet with Major General Winfield Scott. Both of the regiment’s majors, George H. Thomas and Earl Van Dorn, were on leaves of absence. At this critical juncture, the regiment was without a commanding officer from February 13th to April 11th.
This, then, is where we join the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in February of 1861: scattered to the winds and forced to decide at the company level how to react to this chain of events.