Texans would not listen to ‘Old Roman’

By Bartee Haile

After 22 weeks in solitary confinement, a former U.S. Senator and member of the Confederate cabinet was released by his Yankee captors and allowed to go home to Texas.

John Henninger Reagan was born in 1818 in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee. As a boy, he worked alongside his father at a tannery and on the family farm. After the death of his mother in 1831, what little time there had been for learning was taken up by the heavy burden of caring for five younger siblings.

No matter what the obstacles Reagan held onto his dream of getting an education. He pair for two years at a private academy by hiring out as a day laborer on nearby farms. By 1838 his brothers and sisters were old enough to look after themselves making it possible for their big brother to leave home with a clear conscience.

Reagan managed a plantation outside Natchez before moving west to the newly independent Republic of Texas. His arrival in 1839 coincided with the so-called “Cherokee War” that was in truth the violent eviction of that peaceful tribe. The newcomer took part in the climactic battle that ended with the death of Sam Houston’s surrogate father, Chief Bowles, and the forced departure of the leaderless Indians.

Reagan had his own close call a short time later. Caught out in the open by a blue norther, he lost consciousness but somehow stayed in the saddle. His horse carried him to Rip Ford’s camp, where the famous frontiersman saved the Tennessean’s life by dunking him clothes and all in a tub of water and slowly warming the room.

For three years, Reagan did whatever it took to keep body and soul together. He farmed a little, surveyed a lot and on occasion acted as a scout. All the while he was making friends, enough to be elected the first county
judge of Henderson County and the next year to a seat in the second state legislature. Then in 1852 he won a special election to fill a vacancy on the district bench in Palestine, which he made his permanent home.

By the mid-1850’s, Reagan was a rising star in the Democratic Party. He rode the wave of his growing popularity to the U.S. Congress in 1857 as the representative from the eastern district of Texas.

The storm clouds of secession and possible war were gathering over the nation’s capital, when the first-term congressman came to town full of optimism and what he thought were fresh ideas. But the Texan could not make himself heard over the deafening slavery debate.

Two frustrating years later, Reagan had to ask the voters for a second term. His campaign turned into a balancing act as he supported fire-breathing secessionist Hardin Runnels for governor over Unionist Sam Houston while presenting himself as a moderate in favor of preserving the Union at all costs.

When Houston and Reagan trounced their opponents, the congressman’s hope for the future was renewed. But John Brown’s attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry forced him to accept the inevitability of the North-South split with all its consequences.

With the breakup of the Union a certainty following the election of Lincoln, Reagan resigned his seat in congress and returned to Texas in time to attend the secession convention and await further developments.

After Texas officially withdrew from the Union and joined the Confederacy, Reagan offered his services in whatever capacity the southern president saw fit. He patiently waited his turn as Jefferson Davis filled his
cabinet with lesser men whose qualifications did not hold a candle to the Texan’s.

Davis finally offered Reagan the one remaining and least desirable position – postmaster general. He accepted without a word of complaint and within months had the smoothest functioning department in the entire government.

When Davis fled Richmond at the end of the war, only Texas governor Francis R. Lubbock and Reagan cast their lots with the fugitive president. Union pursuers caught up with them in Georgia and sent Reagan to a military prison in Boston harbor.

Articles and editorials in the northern press opened the captive’s eyes to the bitter and vindictive hostility of the winning side. In an August 1865 open letter to his fellow Texans, he counseled calm and cooperation and argued against continued resistance.

Upon his return a few months later, Reagan was shocked and disappointed by the reaction to his appeal. Most Texans condemned his wise advice as cowardly appeasement driving him into seclusion on his Palestine farm.

The post-war occupation and Reconstruction rule changed public opinion in the outcast’s favor. Hailed as the “Old Roman,” a tribute to his wisdom, Reagan was elected to his old seat in congress and in 1887 to the senate. At the behest of Gov. Jim Hogg, he resigned halfway through his term to establish and chair the railroad commission.

John Reagan had just finished his epic autobiography, when he died of pneumonia in 1905 at the age of 85. Historian Ben Procter ranked him as one of “the four greatest Texans of the 19th century” along with Houston, Austin and Hogg.

Read all about the early years of the oil frenzy in “Texas Boomtowns: A History of Blood and Oil” Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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