Had the governor in December 1861 simply suggested burning Galveston to the ground — and left it at that — perhaps things might not have gotten heated.
But, no, Gov. Francis Richard Lubbock felt a need to impugn the islanders’ honor in justifying his fiery proposal.
Lubbock was born in South Carolina, which a year earlier, on Dec. 20, 1860, became the first of 11 states to secede from the Union. Texas became the seventh member of the Confederacy on Feb. 1, 1861, when it, too, betrayed the United States of America, little more than 15 years after it had been accepted into the Union.
Lubbock, at the time of his recommendation that Galveston be put to the torch — as a last resort, mind you — had been Texas governor less than a month after having won the post by a scant 124 votes statewide.
On Dec. 6, 1861, he wrote to the supreme Texas military commander, Brig. Gen. Paul Octave Hébert, who had graduated first in his West Point class of 1840 and later had been decorated for valor during the Mexican War.
Yet, Hébert in assuming the military command of the Confederate state of Texas in September 1861 placed himself on the wrong side of history.
Lubbock, for his part, had no military experience, yet wrote to the war veteran: “My dear sir, I do not wish you to understand me as intending to interfere with your views as to the proper and most effective mode of fighting the Vandals should they attempt to invade our soil. …
“If, however, it is found to be impossible to prevent them from taking possession of the Island, then I would suggest, as a dernier recours,” — perhaps intentionally phrasing this “last resort” as a cloying appeal to the Louisiana-born general’s French heritage — “that the city of Galveston be entirely destroyed, buildings and everything else.”
If not, he darkly warned, Galvestonians just might “yield a willing obedience to the invaders, particularly if by so doing their homes and property would be saved from destruction by the enemy.”
Hébert had established his headquarters in Galveston, and Lubbock’s aspersion spread with all the fervor of the flames the governor proposed to put to every structure on the island. Word soon got back to Lubbock that his slur had not gone over well, and he sought to make amends — of a sort.
On Dec. 19, in a letter published on the front page of the Galveston News directly beneath that which he had written to Hébert, he addressed Mayor Thomas Joseph to clarify that, yes, he had proposed torching the city, if need be — but, rest assured, he meant no other harm:
“The letter speaks for itself. I had no right to give an order to the Commanding General. I made suggestions to him, and assured him that if he deemed the destruction of Galveston a just military necessity, I would most cheerfully share with him any responsibility taken in the premises.”
He then broached a personal concern, writing that “[a]n attempt has already, and doubtless will continue to be made, to prejudice the minds of the people of Galveston against the Executive for having written this letter, and it will be said by some that the letter reflects upon the people’s patriotism. This, I say, is wholly unfounded and grossly false. I have never in my life spoken of Galveston and her citizens but in the kindest terms.”
Save, perhaps, for having impugned their honor.
Galveston’s leaders immediately drafted a resolution attesting to their steadfast loyalty to the disloyal Confederacy — and to their outrage over the governor’s slander:
“Resolved, That we have ever been, are now, and always will be, ready and willing to yield a cheerful and prompt obedience to every order that the distinguished general officer of the State may give …
“Resolved, That we have heard with feelings of mingled surprise and pain the recommendations of Governor Lubbock to Gen. Hébert … to entirely destroy the city of Galveston under the erroneous impression that a portion of its citizens ‘would be ready to yield a willing obedience to the invaders, particularly if by so doing their homes and property would be saved from destruction by the enemy.’ …
“Resolved, That while we repel all imputations upon our patriotism, our loyalty, and our honor, we claim that for the common defense in the unrighteous war now waged against us by an insane and vindictive enemy, our efforts and sacrifices have been as freely and as lavishly made as those of any other community in the State.”
As war and fate would have it, the island soon did fall to Union forces — albeit regained in the Battle of Galveston — before ultimately being abandoned as yellow fever roared through it.
By then, Lubbock, who had opted not to seek re-election when his term expired in 1863, had joined the Confederate army as a non-combat officer, currying favor with Confederate President Jefferson Davis with whom, in April 1865, he fled the rebel capital of Richmond, Va.
Both were captured, yet soon enough freed and allowed to go on about their lives.
Lubbock, as irony would have it, subsequently found his way to Galveston where he was appointed tax collector, a post in which he presumably was little more popular than he had been when disparaging the honor of those he now called neighbor.