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David Twiggs had to make an agonizing choice: the U.S. Army or the South.

In the days before the Civil War, loyalties in the military were severely tested. The concept of union was still fairly new, and the pull of states’ rights among Southern soldiers was strong. Men’s careers and reputations hung in the balance—as Brevet Maj. Gen. David E. Twiggs discovered.

By military standards, Twiggs was ancient. Born on his family’s Georgia estate in 1790, he had devoted his entire life to the U.S. Army, and had an illustrious career. By early 1861, he had seen action in the War of 1812 and the Mexican and Black Hawk wars, as well as the punitive expeditions against the Spaniards and Indians in Florida. Known to his troops as“Old Davy” and the “Bengal Tiger,” he had risen gradually in the ranks. While serving in Mexico, he was promoted to brigadier general for gallantry at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, and to brevet major general at Monterrey. He was wounded at Chapultepec, and was appointed military governor of Veracruz. A grateful Congress voted him a gold-mounted sword and scabbard. In 1857, after holding a number of administrative posts, he was sent to San Antonio to assume command of the Department of Texas.

In December 1860, after nearly a yearlong sick leave during which Colonel Robert E. Lee took over his command, the 70-year-old Twiggs returned to his post— and a city in turmoil. Secession was on everyone’s mind and lips, and Twiggs was torn between his duty as a U.S. officer and his firm belief in states’ rights. He sensed— as did most military men—that the recent Republican election victory heralded a national split; just a day after Twiggs’ return to duty, Lee wrote to his son, “General Twiggs thinks the Union will be dissolved in six weeks, and that he will then return to New Orleans.”

Twiggs repeatedly wrote to the War Department, asking for a clear delineation of his responsibilities in the event of hostilities. He received no specific instructions beyond a directive to refrain from acts of war or aggression while protecting government property—conflicting orders that would soon place him in an untenable position. Finally, on January 13, 1861, he wrote to Washington requesting to be relieved of command. He followed up with a forthright letter to Winfield Scott, general in chief of the Army, explaining his position as a Southerner in the service of the United States:“I am placed in a most embarrassing situation….As soon as I know Georgia has separated from the Union I must, of course, follow her. I most respectfully ask to be relieved in the command of this department….All I have is in the South.”

Twiggs’ superiors in Washington delayed signing the order to relieve him until the end of the month. By the time it arrived, affairs had gone as far as circumstances allowed without turning bloody. On February 1, the Texas secession convention adopted—but did not yet ratify—an ordinance of secession, and shortly thereafter sent three commissioners to meet with Twiggs. They demanded the immediate surrender of his troops, as well as all the weapons, munitions and stores for which the general was responsible, and they backed their demands with a sizable force of armed Texans under the command of Ben McCulloch. McCulloch had fought at San Jacinto, served in the Texas Rangers during the Mexican War and had battled Indians and bandits on the frontier for nearly 25 years. Now, the Texas convention had given him the rank of colonel and orders to eject the U.S.Army from Texas, by force if necessary.

Resolved not to fire upon fellow Southerners, Twiggs acceded to the commissioners’ demands—stipulating only that his men be allowed to march out of San Antonio with their weapons. He then surrendered the other forts under his command, making a total of 19 Federal military installations in Texas that were now in the hands of the Rebels—several weeks before war was declared.

Twiggs did not make the decision lightly. He had clearly stated his position to the War Department, and was merely waiting to be formally relieved of command. Political considerations aside, he had practical issues to address. Most of his men were patrolling the Mexican border, and he had fewer than 200 soldiers under his immediate command; by most accounts, the Texans numbered a thousand or more. Outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded, Twiggs chose discretion over valor and marched the garrison out of San Antonio. In addition to the string of outposts, he left in the Texans’ hands thousands of muskets and pistols, hundreds of wagons and horses and dozens of cannons.

Had his replacement—staunch New York Unionist Colonel Carlos Adolphus Waite—arrived before McCulloch, the outcome might have been the same, but not without strenuous resistance. Waite, a career soldier, had received several promotions for gallant and meritorious conduct in Mexico, and he had no ambivalence about his loyalty.

When word of Twiggs’ actions reached the North, he was branded a traitor and accused of participating in a secessionist plot. Ignoring the earlier orders relieving Twiggs of command, President James Buchanan himself dismissed Twiggs from the U.S. Army in March 1861. Two months later, the much-vilified old man was commissioned the senior major general in the fledgling Confederate Army, in command of the Department of Louisiana. However, increasingly unwell and embarrassed by his dishonorable discharge, Twiggs did not remain long on active duty. By July of the following year, he was dead, his reputation and lifelong career in tatters.

Twiggs was not alone in surrendering his post at this volatile time. During the final days of the Buchanan administration, Federal forts fell like dominoes while the outgoing president—locked in denial and hoping for a miracle—looked the other way. South Carolina troops seized Fort Moultrie and Castle Pinckney in December 1860; Alabama’s native sons took over Mobile’s Fort Morgan in early January, and combined with troops from Florida in capturing Fort Barrancas and the Federal navy yard at Pensacola. On January 3, men from David Twiggs’ home state of Georgia took Fort Pulaski in Savannah. And in April, shortly after Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency, Major Robert Anderson—a slave-owning Kentuckian and loyal Unionist—gave over Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, after further resistance proved impossible. Twiggs’ capitulation in San Antonio, however, involved so vast a number of forts, weapons, livestock and materiel that even James Buchanan couldn’t ignore its significance, formally describing the old general’s actions as “treachery to the flag.”

While time and circumstances brought about the downfall of David Twiggs, they contributed to making Robert E. Lee a major icon of the Civil War. It is tempting, however, to consider what path Lee would have taken—and how the nation would have viewed him—had Twiggs’ illness left Lee in command of the Department of Texas for just one more month.


Historian Ron Soodalter is also a flamenco guitarist, scrimshander and folklorist.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here