TEXAS NAVY, THE
Wells, Tom H
Little recalled today is the formidable fleet mustered as the Naval force of the Lone Star Republic
In the 1830s, events of fundamental importance to the United States began to take place in the vast, sparsely populated southwest area that in those years became an independent nation the Lone Star Republic. The United States, after purchasing the Louisiana Territory, grew steadily toward a true insularity, spreading from sea to sea.
Naval power had decided her destiny so far. Within generations, the fleets of the United States would decide that of the rest of the world. Texas was destined to play a large part in that drama, but first she would write her own stirring story – in which the sea was similarly decisive.
Small nations, as well as large, may find their existence dependent upon a clear understanding and timely application of seapower. The Republic of Texas owed its precarious life in the decade between 1835 and 1845 to a combination of its own temporary strength at sea and the fortunate action of larger Naval powers.
The accompanying chart, part of which is based upon surveys made by the Texas Navy, illustrates the essentially maritime character of affairs both during and after the Texas revolt against Mexico in 1835. The western Gulf of Mexico is shaped like a giant “C” with New Orleans at one end and the Yucatan Peninsula at the other. In between, from the Tropic of Cancer to the present site of Corpus Christi, sprawled a virtually impenetrable desert, relieved only along the coast by an occasional seaport, such as Matamoros at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Men could march across the arid region, but neither Texas nor Mexico was ever able to solve the logistic problems inherent in such an operation. In the Mexican War, Gen. Zachary Taylor would encounter the same difficulty of supplying his troops and he, too, would be unable to master these arid reaches. It proved impractical for either Texas or Mexico to sustain an assault on the other by land.
The Texans, who were concentrated in the area between the United 5 States border and the Colorado River along the navigable streams fairly near the coast, turned naturally enough to the sea. New Orleans and Mobile, at the tip of the “C”, represented a ready source of men, munitions, and money; and ccmmunications with these posts were almost exclusively carried on by sea.
In 1835, about 40 merchant ships, almost all flying the American flag ( those emigrating to Texas apparently still felt entitled to the United States citizenship they renounced when they went to the Mexican Territory), plied between Texas and US ports. For the most part they were small vessels between 80- and 90-tons, but they held the only real hope for supply and reinforcement in the prolonged conflict with Mexico. The large steamship Columbia, for example, carried more than 700 volunteers into Texas on two voyages, a force more than three times the size of that lost at the Alamo and almost as large as the victorious Texas Army at the battle of San Jacinto.
Further south along the coastal “C” were the principal seaports for Mexico’s populous highlands – Tampico, Tuxpan, and Vera Cruz, the gateway to Mexico City. The bottom of the “C” was a quagmire of swamps and marshes which prevented effective overland communications with the Province of Yucatan.
Yucatan was the New England of Mexico, the shipbuilding and sailor-producing section of the country. It was here that canoas – 50- to 60-ton vessels which formed the coastal trading and fishing fleet – were built, manned, and operated. The province was so isolated from the rest of the country that it was frequently neglected. Accordingly, it was often in or near a state of rebellion against the national government.
Inside the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula were the Alacaranes and Areas Island, and outside it the larger islands of Mujeres and Cozumel. All were utilized at some time by the Texas Navy for operations against Mexican vessels.
Once Texas proclaimed its independence, the strategies of the two adversaries at once became clear. Repeatedly, the Texans not only had to prevent a seaborne or sea-supported invasion from the south, but also had to protect their sealanes to New Orleans and Mobile in the east. In performing these twin tasks, they had to inflict unacceptable losses on Mexico so that the latter would recognize her independence.
On the other hand, it was incumbent upon Mexico to project a sizable army into Texas and sustain it there, while at the same time she would have to prevent a mutual defense agreement between Texas and the turbulent, ever rebellious Yucatan. To achieve its aim, Mexico would have to control the sea.
Political and economic strife within Mexico greatly aided the Texas cause, for Mexico was still rent by the chaotic aftermath of its revolution against Spain a decade before. But it was the Mexicans’ inability to comprehend and employ seapower that helped the Texans most. The new Republic’s foe failed to blockade the Texas coast effectively. And Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s great overland invasion was blunted and turned back because of inadequate logistic support – which, in its own turn, was caused by the timely action of a few warships of the Texas Rangers. Mexico’s lack of understanding and appreciation of the meaning and techniques of seapower gave the Texans advantages they sorely needed.
Although Great Britain, France, and at times Spain, all maintained Naval forces in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, the only principal seapower in the area was the United States. The American Navy was small in comparison with the fleets of the older nations and in proportion to its large merchant marine, but it did have cruising stations off Brazil, West Africa, in the East Indies, and in the Mediterranean. In addition, scattered units were employed in exploration, such as the Wilkes scientific expedition to the Pacific and Lynch’s survey of the River Jordan and Dead Sea area.
The Home Squadron, located on the east coast, composed the main strength of the US Navy, with a small flotilla kept in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Force based at Pensacola, consisted primarily of small ships suitable for operations in shallow waters. Many of them were veterans of the second Seminole War in Florida which was at last coming to an end as the Texas question increased in complexity and seriousness.
The American people generally sympathized with their former countrymen in Texas, although there was sharp division over the question of admitting Texas into the Union. American merchants and vessels conducted a large and lucrative trade in the Gulf, and the bulk of material entering both Texas and Mexico came in these and British merchantmen. Therefore, the questions of contraband and blockade were not simply of academic interest to be discussed in foreign offices during the conflict; they were real and immediate problems involving large sums of money and vast quantities of material.
From the early days of the nation, and particularly during the Napoleonic Wars, freedom of the seas had been an extremely sensitive point with Americans. The country’s merchantmen demanded the freedom to sail without hindrance wherever they could load or discharge cargo. And they expected their Navy to protect them.
Other countries had the same concern for their commerce, but none was more solicitous of its rights than the United States, and none could boast of such a spectacular rise in international trade. This zealous care for freedom on the high seas often brought friction – and sometimes crises – but it was an indispensable contributor to the greatness which the nation attained. The naval experiences of the Republic of Texas are a significant part of the transition of the United States from a new and somewhat backward country into a world power of the sea.
ROLE OF THE TEXAS NAVY, 1835-1838
Texas revolted against Mexico in the autumn of 1835, but it was not until 2 March 1836 that it formally seceded. The roots of the rebellion were in the differences of race, religion, language, law, and the ideals of government between the Spanish-Indian civilization and the culture of the former citizens of the United States. Yet the immediate causes lay very much in maritime and tariff problems.
A particularly inflammatory incident took place on 1 September 1835 when Texans, embarked in the American merchant ship San Felipe and steam tug Laura, engaged the Mexican treasury vessel Correo de Mejico at Brazoria. After wounding her captain, they accused him of piracy when he could not produce his commission and took him and his vessel to New Orleans. The court there detained the Correo de Mejico, as well as her officers and men, for three months before Mexico secured their release. During this period, the Texas coast remained unpatrolled by Mexico and was wide open for the introduction of men and munitions for the revolt. Without the ships to keep their own coast open, the Texans had succeeded in substituting American courts for the seapower they so urgently needed.
The Correo de Mejico incident, however, also greatly aroused Mexican public opinion and was probably a contributing factor to the punitive invasion of Texas by Lopez de Santa Anna in 1836.
The Mexican Navy did have ships available in northern Mexican waters to replace the Correo de Mejico while she was inactive at New Orleans. But the vessels were not used to their best advantage – primarily because of the activity of Texas privateers. By Christmas 1835, the Texas Consultation, a provisional congress, had authorized the issuance of six letters of marque and reprisal. One of the privateers, William Robbins, on 19 December 1835 recaptured the small American schooner Hannah Elizabeth, which had been seized by the Mexicans for having on board two cannons and other contraband for rebellious Texas.
The capture of Hannah Elizabeth, the seizure of Correo de Mejico, and the threat of other losses at sea caused Mexican authorities to commence convoying their ships along their own coast. Just how many ships comprised the Mexican Navy at this time is unknown, but the schooners Bravo and Vera Cruzana were the only two mentioned as stationed on the Texas coast in early 1836. In any case the Navy was small, and the diversion of even one or two vessels to protect Mexico’s own shipping could – and did – prevent an effective blockade of the defiant state’s seaports.
Meanwhile, more spectacular and dramatic events were taking place ashore. By the end of 1835, irregular Texas military forces had driven the Mexican garrison across the Rio Grande. Both sides began recruiting new, larger, and better-equipped armies for the more serious and bloody war they knew would ensue. The Texans relied upon adventurers from the United States, and they were not disappointed. Most of the men who died in the Alamo came to Texas in the winter of 1835-1836. Whole companies brought their own arms and equipment in chartered vessels from New Orleans and Mobile. By sea, Texas grew swiftly in strength.
As for the Mexicans, President Lopez de Santa Anna came north from Mexico City, raised an army and took personal command of a three-pronged attack on Texas. His columns destroyed or drove before them virtually every vestige of the Anglo-American civilization. By 6 March 1836, the Alamo had fallen; a week later Goliad succumbed. The only sizable force remaining to the Texans was the haphazardly organized group of less than a 1000 men under Sam Houston, the new Commander-in-Chief. This small army retreated steadily before Santa Anna’s troops while keeping close to the sea and between the Mexicans and the fleeing women and children in what Texans termed the “Runaway Scrape.” Texas appeared doomed
However, Texas had begun to build a Navy. The General Council of the provisional government authorized a fleet consisting of four schooners on 24 November 1835. From this date, the Navy of the Republic of Texas may be said to exist, although formal independence was not declared until 2 March 1836.
The first commissioned ship was the former United States Treasury cutter Ingham, which the Texans rechristened Independence. This small ship, only 89-ft in length, was commanded by Charles E. Hawkins, a former US midshipman. Hawkins also became unit commander of other ships as they were acquired. Cruising between Galveston and Tampico during the first three months of 1836, he captured a number of small coasters and fishing craft and generally disrupted the vital seaborne communications of Santa Anna’s army.
About twice as large as Independence, the second ship in this first squadron was the Brutus, commanded by Capt. W.A. Hurd, the former master of the privateer William Robbins. The latter also was taken into the regular Texas Navy, renamed Liberty, and assigned to Capt. W.S. Brown. His brother Jeremiah Brown received command of a fourth warship named Invincible. Hurd and the two Browns were former masters of small vessels which sailed the Texas coast. This experience made them ideal commanders in these early, rough and ready days when local navigational and political knowledge was a definite prerequisite for success.
During the crucial months of March and April 1836, the four-ship “fleet” played a decisive role in preserving the independence which Texas had just proclaimed. On 3 March, W.S. Brown’s Liberty was on a semi-piratical cruise to Yucatan when she encountered the Mexican merchant schooner Pelican and captured her under the guns of the fortress at Sisal. The prize proved to contain 300 kegs of powder and other military supplies concealed inside cargo owned by the New Orleans firm of J.W. Zacharie. Pelican ran aground and was lost on the bar at Matagorda, Texas, but her cargo was salvaged and used to good advantage in the San Jacinto campaign
A short time later, Liberty also seized the American brig Durango which was similarly loaded and falsely manifested. Brown’s men appropriated her cargo and destroyed her.
During this period, Invincible captured the American brig Pocket, carrying contraband under a false manifest to the Mexican Army at the mouth of the Rio Grande. Her charter also included an agreement to carry Mexican troops to the Corpus Christi area.
Such action involving American ships, however justified by the exigencies of the war effort, was bound to antagonize the United States. And, when Invincible sailed into New Orleans a few weeks after taking Pocket, Cdr. Alexander J. Dallas, USN, ordered her captain and crew arrested on charges of piracy. The naval charges were dropped several weeks later, but a civil suit remained in litigation for a number of years. Meanwhile, the Republic of Texas bought Pocket and used both her and her cargo against the Mexicans.
Every source of strength was desperately needed by the Texans, for in these early spring months, Mexico’s armies were everywhere victorious. Santa Anna pushed northward, keeping close to the Gulf, and hoping to use the sea lanes to provide him with logistic support. Throughout the campaign, the Mexican President kept looking for ships that never came. The activity of the small but active Texas Navy spelled the difference.
Finally, on 21 April 1836, Gen. Sam Houston turned on his pursuer, penned Santa Anna’s army against Buffalo Bayou – which it could not cross – and completely destroyed it, capturing Santa Anna himself. Houston’s soldiers justly received credit for the decisive battle of San Jacinto; but nevertheless the victory could not have been won – or the battle even fought – had temporary Naval superiority not been achieved. Santa Anna was trapped due to his need to stay near the sea. Weakness afloat prevented his escape. He was inadequately supplied because his ships could not reach him.
Like the French fleet at Yorktown in an earlier American revolution, the Texas squadron did not see the final land battle. But neither the decisive engagement in 1781 nor the one in Texas 55 years later could have been fought successfully without the victor having first achieved at least a momentary naval superiority.
The defeat at San Jacinto forced the other two wings of the Mexican Army to withdraw from Texas. This retreat ended for all practical purposes any Mexican pretense of retaining authority in Texas – and made the task of reconquering it by land prohibitively difficult. The almost impassable arid area across northern Mexico and southwestern Texas served as an effective impediment to the use of land power alone. The prevention of necessary communications between central Mexico and the Texas coast remained the key to successful defense of the new Republic.
Warship Invincible brought to President Burnet his first information of the victory at San Jacinto. Afterward, the little fleet continued its operations along the coast. Liberty escorted Flora when she took the wounded Gen. Houston to New Orleans for hospitalization. While there, Liberty, unable to meet her refitting bills, was detained in May 1836 and later sold to satisfy her creditors – an event which illustrated the shoestring budget under which the Texas Navy was forced to work despite the demands on it.
The other three vessels (Invincible, Brutus and Pocket ) began a blockade of Matamoros at the mouth of the Rio Grande in an effort to interfere with attempts of the Mexican Army to return to Texas. In early September 1836, all three ships went to New Orleans or New York for overhaul because Texas lacked the industrial and commercial facilities to do the work locally.
A typically derring-do Texan incident occurred on 3 June 1836 when a detachment of 20 Texas Rangers captured three merchant ships near Corpus Christi. The Rangers, under Maj. Isaac Burton, had been scouting the retreating Mexican Army when they learned a strange ship was offshore. They enticed her to send a boat in and, in short order, captured the boat and the American vessel Watchman, which was carrying supplies for the Mexicans. Shortly thereafter, two more American merchantmen, Comanche and Fanny Butler, also came in with supplies for the Mexican Army. The Rangers surprised the crews and seized the ships. The Admiralty court at Velasco condemned all three vessels and their cargoes.
By the spring of 1837, while all three Texas warships were repairing in the United States, Mexico had a squadron of three brigs and two schooners blockading Galveston and other Texas ports. In their zeal to close the coast, the Mexican ships seized a number of American merchant vessels suspected of carrying contraband to the enemy. The United States consul at Matamoros requested Naval assistance to protect the nation’s shipping, and Cdr. Dallas ordered Cmdr. William Mervine’s sloop-of-war Natchez to investigate.
Mervine entered the Rio Grande in time to witness the Mexican brig General Urrea escorting the captured merchantman Louisiana into port. He swiftly obtained Louisiana’s release and then had a sharp engagement with the Mexican brigs, General Urrea, General Teran, and General Bravo, which were supported by fire from the Mexican-manned fort. Mervine closed the battle by capturing General Urrea and retaking the American merchant ship Climax. He took the former to Pensacola where Cdr. Dallas ordered a court of inquiry to look into what he regarded as Mervine’s precipitous action. He returned the Mexican brig and apologized for the incident.
On 17 April 1837, the Texas warship Independence, now commanded by George W. Wheelwright (Charles Hawkins had died of smallpox in New Orleans ), was entering the Brazos River when she was intercepted by the brigs of war Vencedor del Alamo and Libertador. After a skillful six-hour chase, Cdr. Francisco Lopez forced Independence to surrender. Although Wheelwright was wounded during the engagement, his ship was so slightly damaged that she soon saw service in the Mexican fleet as the Independencia, thus flying her third national flag in two years. Before her career was over, she became a part of the Navy of rebellious Yucatan and was even manned again for a few days in 1843 by the Texas Navy.
S. Rhodes Fisher, Secretary of the Texas Navy, had seen part of the battle involving Independence from the beach. He knew that President Houston and the Texas Congress were at odds over naval strategy. The Congress and the general public favored aggressive action, while Houston believed that if the Mexicans were not attacked, they would leave Texas alone. Fisher agreed with Congress and, without consulting the President, he went to Galveston where he ordered Brutus, commanded by J.D. Boylan, and Invincible, under H.L. Thompson, to sea. The audacious secretary accompanied the expedition as a volunteer, but he left Thompson in command of the two-ship squadron.
The cruise began on 11 June 1837; it was short, spectacular, and extremely controversial. The first stop was Mujeres Island, off Yucatan, which they claimed for Texas. During the process, the Texans stocked up on the abundant supply of turtles and departed without paying for them. Continuing up the Yucatan coast, the expedition boarded ships and landed shore parties until finally they were attacked by a cavalry force and driven back to their ships. The Texans burned two villages in reprisal, then tried to force Campeche to pay $25,000 in tribute. However, the city was surrounded by heavy stone walls and was well-fortified. After an inconclusive three-hour exchange of gunfire, the two ships departed.
At sea the Texans met with more success – and diplomatic difficulty. They not only captured the small Mexican vessels Union, Telegrafo, Adventure, Rafaelita, and Correo de Tabasco, but also seized the British merchantman Eliza Russell. The latter action precipitated a serious diplomatic strain with Great Britain.
Sailing some of the Mexican vessels with prize crews and scuttling or burning the rest, Invincible and Brutus headed back for the Texas coast. They succeeded in evading a superior Mexican squadron off the coast until 27 August. Then the Mexican brigs Iturbide and Libertador sighted Brutus as she was entering Galveston Harbor, and Invincible anchored offshore awaiting high tide to go in. Although the exact characteristics of the Mexican vessels remain unknown, Libertador was said to have mounted 16 18-pounders. In any case, they were considerably larger and greatly out-gunned the Texans. Invincible ran aground in the poorly charted channel into Galveston, and Brutus beached inside the harbor while trying to come to her aid. Both later broke up in storms. The last two ships of the early Texas Navy were gone.
Nevertheless, their cruise was a strategic success because it had drawn Mexican blockaders away from the Texas coast for several vital weeks while men and munitions continued to pour into the new Republic. The longer the informal reinforcements in the form of individual adventurers could continue, the better Texas was able to gird itself against future assault. The existence of the Republic was still precarious, but life remained in it. In this sense, Texas sea power, whatever its shortcomings, was a success.
The year 1838 found Texas without any of the warships that had served her so well. Indeed, she was without any Navy at all until Potomac, an old merchant brig, was purchased from L.M. Hitchcock of Galveston. It was an acquisition of dubious wisdom at best, for her entire service was as a station and receiving ship at Galveston. Inasmuch as there were few sailors to spare, Potomac served little purpose, constantly needing repair and requiring more men to keep her secure than she ever had available for transfer.
With its Naval forces in such a state, Texas was saved from serious difficulty in 1838 by two circumstances beyond her control. The first was internal trouble in Mexico which required a concentration of security forces at home and diluted efforts that might have been made to retake Texas.
The second was the “Pastry War” between France and Mexico, so-called because one of its causes was a French baker’s claim against the Mexican government. The conflict ended with the bombardment and partial destruction of Fort San Juan de Ulua at Vera Cruz and the capture of virtually the entire Mexican Navy by the French. Even though Vera Cruz was returned to Mexican rule when peace was restored in 1839, the French retained the captured warships. Thus, during 1838 the Naval power of both Texas and Mexico became almost nonexistent.
BY TOM H. WELLS, CMDR. USNR (RET’D)
Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Feb 2005
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