The Texas Navy — Part 1

Background

The Mexican Independence Era (1808-1829) was part of a much larger political movement in the Americas.  It was a time when the Hispanic people of North America, Central America, and South America (and far distant Asian countries) threw off the shackles of Spanish suzerainty to establish their own countries.  Independence movements were momentous and unanticipated events that upended 300 years of Spanish colonial rule over a vast area of the world.

Spanish Mexico went from rule by a legitimate monarch and his appointed viceroy to an illegitimate monarch and a ruler put in place through a coup d’état.  The net effect of this was a political disaster for Mexico — one that lasted many years.  Pro-monarchist Mexicans battled republicans, switched sides, supported, and then opposed insurrectionists.  It seemed as if everyone was seeking advantages for themselves.  And, of course, they were.

No sooner had Mexico announced its independence from Spain in 1821, leaders of the new republic began to argue about how the new nation should conduct its internal affairs.  Initially, Mexico created an empire lasting two years (1821-1823).  In 1824, Mexican officials proclaimed a federal republic, calling it Estados Unidos Mexicanos (with its constitution partly modeled on the U.S. Constitution).

The Constitution of 1824 established 19 states, four territories, and a federal city to serve as the national capital.  Within this framework, two political groups emerged: centralists, favoring a strong central government in the viceregal tradition of New Spain, and federalists, who favored limited central government and semi-autonomous states.  Political influence shifted back and forth between these two groups — too frequently the result of armed insurrection.  Mexican officials were always wary of the aims of Americans in their northernmost territories, including the American immigrants whom Mexican officials permitted to settle in the Mexican Province of Coahuila y Tejas.  The secret was out: the United States was hungry for more territory.

In 1830, wary of the rapid increase in Anglo populations from the United States, Mexican officials legislated against further settlement.  Mexican officials also reimposed tariffs on persons and goods entering Texas to clarify their intentions.  From that point forward, the conflict between Mexican officials and residents of Texas increased, particularly given the resentment among Texians toward Mexican military officials sent to force compliance with Mexico’s new laws — which the Texians believed were violations of the Mexican Constitution of 1824.  These deeply held beliefs prompted the Texians to convene provisional government bodies to consider and help decide courses of action toward Texian independence from Mexico.

Topic Introduction

Looking at a typical map, one might ask — “Texas Navy?  Really?” Well, sure enough, partner.  The Texas Gulf Coast extends 350 miles from the Texas Border with Louisiana to its border with Mexico. It’s a lot of coastline to defend — or monitor for collecting customs duties.

Most early Texas settlers arrived by sea from New Orleans or Mobile.  They disembarked in Galveston, Matagorda Bay, or the Brazos’ mouth at Freeport.  One might also say that the Gulf of Mexico became a lifeline to Texans (then and now) for exchanging such necessary products as lumber, wool, cotton, and manufactured goods — from weaponry and ammunition to cloth and heavy equipment for sawmills and cotton gins.  In the early days, Mexican officials waived customs duties on travelers and imports to encourage economic development.

In addition to its importance to Anglo settlers, the Texas coast was also politically vital to Mexican officials seeking to exert control over the province of Coahuila y Tejas from Mexico’s capital city.[1]  In 1824, the trip to San Antonio to San Antonio took 40 days over harsh terrain regularly patrolled by hostile Indians.  The journey from Matamoros to San Antonio took 12 days.  Most military commanders thought such an undertaking was unnecessarily risky — especially when ships were faster, safer, and more efficient.

Mexico’s ban on American emigration and its imposition of tariffs in 1830 would have had no effect without the government’s ability to impose its will on the people living in Texas.  Mexican officials established army garrisons at Velasco, Brazoria, Anahuac, and Galveston to achieve that.  The effect of these policies in Texas was more than Mexican officials bargained for — because the Texians were not pleased.  Some folks simply ignored the law.  Other Texians took the initiative to intimidate or overpower the customs officials.

The fact was that Mexico’s thinly staffed military garrisons were no match for angry Texians.[2]  Several Texians, well-known to us today, first came to notice by their participation in the disturbances at Anahuac between 1831-1832.  One of those troublemakers was William Barrett Travis.

At Velasco, Texians assaulted the Mexican garrison, taking possession of two cannons.  Ten Texians and five Mexicans lost their lives in the melee before the Mexican garrison ran out of ammunition and surrendered.  After this incident, Mexican authorities (perhaps realizing that the Texians vastly outnumbered republican forces) relaxed their efforts to collect customs duties for several years.

First Revolutionary Shots

Throughout the first half of 1835, severe disturbances broke out between Texians and Mexican officials.  The centralist government of President Antonio López de Santa Anna implemented new policies of tighter controls over Mexican Texas, starting with a new garrison at Anahuac to support new customs houses there, at Galveston and Brazoria.

On 7 May 1835, the Mexican warship Montezuma de Mexico (under the command of Lieutenant Juan Calvi) seized the American flagged schooner Martha for “customs violations.”  Because the ship’s passengers did not have legitimate passports, Lieutenant Calvi arrested passengers and crew and placed them in confinement.  Ten days later, Lieutenant Calvi seized the Texas ship Columbia for similar infractions.

Both incidents sparked anger in Texas, prompting a debate about whether the seizures were legal.  Smuggling in Texas had become prevalent by 1835, primarily due to the nasty habit of the Yankees in New England before, during, and after the American Revolution.  Smuggling is one of the things the Yankees took with them to Texas, and it is a fact that most American and Texas ships were involved in smuggling operations in Mexico.

When Montezuma seized Martha, Mexican officials came into possession of milling equipment consigned to Robert Wilson.  Outraged, Wilson contacted a 25-year-old attorney named William B. Travis (also a high-ranking Texian militia officer).  On 7 July, Mr. Travis advised Wilson by letter that the United States had dispatched a revenue cutter, Ingham, to respond to Mexican depredations.[3]  Both Texas and the United States viewed the Mexican seizures as a legal act, but the seizures became a matter of national prestige.  President Andrew Jackson urged the “unofficial” use of force to curtail Mexico’s activities.

The revenue cutter Ingham was under the operational control of Customs Agent James Breedlove.  As it happened, Ingham was the only armed American vessel operating in the western Gulf of Mexico.  The ship’s commanding officer was Captain Ezekiel Jones of the United States Revenue Service.  Due to an incident in Havana, Cuba (involving the smuggling of slaves), Breedlove wanted to establish a permanent American naval force in the western Gulf — however, the Secretary of the Navy wouldn’t have it.  It was President Jackson’s extra-legal urgings that led to a naval battle.

According to the official record, Captain Jones, commanding Ingham, deployed on a 25-day anti-slavery patrol.  The unofficial diary reflects that Jones’ orders were to liberate ships seized by the Mexican Navy and liberate American citizens.  Jones crossed into Mexican waters disguised as a merchant ship.  Poor weather forced him back into Texas coastal waters.  On 3 June, a pilot informed Jones that Montezuma had committed several acts of piracy.  Jones sent an investigator ashore to determine the facts of the matter.  The investigator uncovered no illegalities.  Back at sea, Jones boarded two ships and, likewise, found no improprieties.  Jones nevertheless continued searching for Montezuma and seeking confirmation of allegations associated with the Martha affair.  Captain Jones searched for two additional weeks without locating the Mexican ship.

On 13 June, Ingham passed the bar at Paso Cabello, where she ran aground several times, so a pilot was hired to take the ship to Brazos Santiago, arriving the next day.  While six miles offshore, Jones cautiously proceeded by having all hands man their battle stations.  At 5:00 p.m., Jones tacked toward shore, and a lookout sighted a vessel anchored off Brazos Santiago.  An hour later, the vessel was identified as a schooner, and a few moments later, the vessel hoisted sails and “bore down” on Ingham.

At 7:40 p.m., the Mexican ship commenced hostilities with one shot and raised her ensign, revealing the ship as a combatant.  Captain Jones returned fire, causing Montezuma to withdraw with Ingham in pursuit, initiating an occasional salvo.  Lieutenant Calvi fired again, causing Jones to believe the battle was joined.  Captain Jones positioned Ingham for a broadside.  Calvi disengaged, headed to shore, and jettisoned his weapons and other gear to lighten the ship’s weight, increase her speed, and shorten the ship’s draft to cross the bar of the Rio Grande.  Eventually, Lieutenant Calvi destroyed Montezuma by running his ship across the breakers.[4]

In August 1835, in the act of deliberate provocation, Texian merchant Thomas F. McKinney sent his schooner San Felipe from New Orleans to Brazoria, heavily armed and loaded with munitions intended for Texas revolutionaries.  Also on board was Stephen F. Austin, recently released from his imprisonment in Mexico City.  His presence aboard San Felipe was no coincidence because his ordeal in Mexico City had convinced him that subservience to centralized authority in Mexico simply would not do in Texas.  By this time, Stephen Austin was committed to Revolution in Texas.

As the Texas revolution heated up, the Republic’s provisional authority developed three objectives for a Texian Navy.  First, defend the Texas coastline from a Mexican amphibious assault.  Second, they served as armed escorts for Texas (rebel) commercial ships back and forth between Texas and the United States, Texas’ was the primary source of volunteer soldiers and supplies.  The third objective was to inflict casualties on the Mexicans to force them to recognize the independence of Texas.  The problem, of course, was that, at the time, Texas had no navy.

Meanwhile, Mexican naval forces intended just the opposite: blockade the Texas coastline (an impossible task given the length of the Texas coastline and the paucity of Mexican ships of war).  Consequently, Mexico’s blockade remained largely ineffective throughout the revolutionary period.  This allowed the Texans to import much of their war material by sea.

On September 1, Austin, his fellow passengers, and most of the ship’s cargo were transferred to the steamship Laura.  When the Mexican warship Correo de Mexico approached San Felipe, both captains had made clear their intentions to board and capture the other.  They exchanged heavy cannon and rifle fire for about an hour, with the Correo getting the worst of it.  The following day, aggressively pursued by both San Felipe and LauraCorreo struck her colors.

Captain William A. Hurd of San Filipe placed the Commanding Officer of Correo, Captain Thomas M. Thompson, and his crew under arrest on piracy charges and took them back to New Orleans in chains.[5] The trial in January 1836 was a farce that climaxed with Thompson’s lawyers and the United States prosecutors in a shouting match and throwing inkstands and law books at one another.  A disgusted judge declared a mistrial and set Thompson and his men free.

Thompson’s trial may have been farcical, but the result of the San Felipe incident was not.  For a time, the San Felipe’s victory cleared the Texas coast of the Mexican naval presence, thus allowing arms and volunteers from the United States to move unimpeded into Texas.

The Texas Privateers

As the name suggests, privateers are private persons or ship owners who engage in maritime warfare under a commission of war (called a letter of marque) that empowers its holder to employ all forms of hostile action at sea.

Revolution broke out in earnest in Texas in October 1835 at Gonzales and the siege of Béxar.  As these events unfolded, the Consultation (the first revolutionary assembly of Texas) came together in San Felipe on 3 November 1835.  One of the Consultation’s first acts was to consider the protection of the Texas coastal region.  It was, at the time, impossible to establish a viable naval service, so members of the Consultation adopted the practice of issuing letters of marque and reprisal to privateers.  These privately owned ships would protect the coast, harass Mexican shipping, and bring in prizes that could be auctioned, with part of the proceeds going into the public treasury.

Texas issued six letters of marque to privateers, including the San Felipe, the William Robbins, the Terrible, the Thomas Toby, the Flash, and the Ocean.  Flying the “1824” Texas Revolutionary flag, these ships not only patrolled the Gulf but also pursued Mexican shipping on the high seas.  The Thomas Toby was the outstanding privateer of the group, capturing several Mexican vessels and bringing them to port for adjudication and sale of their cargoes.  Overall, however, Texas privateering was disappointing because Mexican shipping, as a source of revenue, was meager.

Organization of the First Texas Navy

In his short life, Charles E. Hawkins (1802 – 1837)[6] served in three navies totaling eleven years of sea service.  Despite this relative lack of experience, the Republic of Texas appointed Hawkins its first commodore.    For whatever reason, Texas Governor Henry Smith became impressed with Hawkins, first offering him a commission as a navy captain and placing him in command of Independence.  On 12 March, Hawkins was advanced to Commodore and put in charge of the Texas Navy.  Today, some claim Hawkins was Texas’ first “fleet commander.” A commander he may have been, but it wasn’t much more than a squadron of ships — and in any case, the number of vessels on the roles of the Texas Navy was far from being a “fleet.”

In 1835, the General Council proposed a navy consisting of two 12-gun and two six-gun schooners.  In January and February 1836, Texas purchased the schooners LibertyInvincibleIndependence, and Brutus.  This decision led to a clash between the provisional governor, Henry Smith, and the General Council of Texas.  The squabble ended with the impeachment of Governor Smith and pushed Texas officials into creating a more stable (permanent) government.

Thus, on 1 March 1836, the General Convention replaced the Council and took up the work of putting the Texas government on a more organized footing — including the creation of the Texas Navy and granting to congress the right to issue letters of marque and reprisal, and the creation of maritime courts.  A naval affairs committee was created, which commissioned officers in the new Texas Navy.

War with Mexico

As soon as he heard about the siege of Bexar, Antonio López de Santa Anna, President of Mexico, and Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican armed forces, began to organize his troops to march on Texas.[7]  Some of his subordinates (the smart ones) urged the general to wait until spring and then make an amphibious landing in Texas.  Santa Anna refused, insisting on marching his army overland instead.[8]  As a result, by the time the army reached Béxar, the men were exhausted and suffering greatly from exposure to an unusually frigid winter, frostbite, malnutrition, thirst, and disease.  The state of this army (and Santa Anna’s mind-boggling incompetence) helps to explain how the Texian rabble could defeat them so easily in February – March 1836.

At the same time Santa Anna’s army began its march, General José de Urrea from Matamoros launched a parallel invasion.  Unlike Santa Anna, Urrea’s army was shadowed by supply ships that would re-provision the troops at the nearest points along the coast. Urrea’s army quickly routed the Texas fighters at San Patricio and Goliad.[9]

But even as the Texians were faltering on land, the tiny Texas Navy was taking the fight to the enemy.  Liberty was the former McKinney & Williams privateer known as William Robbins.  In March 1836, Liberty battled and captured the Mexican trading schooner Pelícano, gaining 300 kegs of gunpowder (concealed in barrels of flour), apples, and potatoes.  A few weeks later, Liberty captured more war supplies when it made a prize of the Mexican brig Durango.

Next, it was the turn of Invincible, also a Thomas McKinney vessel.  In April 1836, Invincible battled the Mexican warship Bravo and captured the cargo ship Pocket, which it seized and took to Galveston as a prize.

American insurance companies pressured the U.S. Navy to seize Invincible and deliver it to the port in New Orleans on the charge of piracy, but the court released the ship and its crew when McKinney’s lawyers demonstrated that Pocket was carrying contraband bound for Mexico.

The privateer Flash played perhaps the most exciting role in the climax of the Revolution.  Two six-pound cannons (dubbed the twin sisters), forged in Cincinnati by citizens who wanted to aid the Texan cause, had been delivered to Galveston in March 1836.  The desperately needed armaments were loaded on Flash, which was ordered to proceed to the Brazos to pick up refugees from the Runaway Scrape fleeing Santa Anna’s advancing army.  Flash completed that mission and then moved to Morgan’s Point, where on 11 April, it delivered the cannons and picked up more refugees, including three Texas cabinet officers, the family of President Burnet, and Vice-President Lorenzo de Zavala and his family.  The rescue was successful, and the armaments Flash delivered became legendary.  The following week, in the Battle of San Jacinto, the Twin Sisters shattered the Mexican lines, significantly contributing to the Texian victory.

After San Jacinto

Several ships of the Texas Navy played essential roles in the aftermath of San Jacinto.  The flagship of the Texas fleet, Independence, carried Texas commissioners to New Orleans to begin their negotiations for recognition by the U.S.  Liberty also went to New Orleans as an escort for Flora, which carried the wounded Sam Houston on board.  In New Orleans, Liberty was sold to pay for its repairs.

Following its court proceeding in New Orleans, Invincible was instructed to stand by to transport President Santa Anna to Veracruz, but this was canceled by order of Texas Brigadier General Thomas Jefferson Green.

No one in Mexico or Texas liked the treaty signed by Santa Ana after the Battle of San Jacinto.  Texas President Burnet sought to punish Mexico for its petulance by blockading Matamoros — and while this worked for a short while, Texian ships were in disrepair, and the government lacked the funds needed for costly repairs.  The departure of these ships for refitting opened the Texas coast to Mexican blockades.

In April 1837, the Independence returned to the Texas coastline from New Orleans, where it encountered two Mexican blockaders within view of Velasco.  After battling the Mexican navy for six hours, Independence struck its colors and was taken as a prize by the Mexicans.  The ship’s crew later escaped confinement, but Independence then served the Mexican navy.

In June 1837, determined to do something about the Mexican blockade, Texas Secretary of War S. Rhoads Fisher and his commodore, Henry L. Thompson, left Texas on a cruise with the two remaining vessels, Invincible and Brutus.  In doing so, both men defied the instructions of Texas President Sam Houston.  The voyage became quite an adventure because, over several months, Invincible and Brutus bombarded the Mexican town of Sisal, seized (and lost) several prizes, seized several Mexican islands, including Cozumel, and captured the British merchantman Eliza Russell and sent the vessel to Galveston as a prize.  Upon returning to Galveston, the ships battled two Mexican brigs hunting a Texas merchantman.  Invincible and Brutus, both ships ran aground in Galveston Harbor and were wrecked by storms before they could be salvaged.

A furious President Houston forced Fisher’s resignation; Commodore Thompson died before he could appear at his court-martial.  At this point, the Texas Navy only consisted of unpaid bills.(Continued next week)

Endnotes:

[1] The Mexican province of Coahuila y Tejas is generally regarded as a period in history known as Mexican Texas.

[2] The people who lived in Coahuila y Tejas in the early 1800s were classified either as Mexicans, Tejanos, or Texians.  Texian is also what Texans called themselves during the Texas Republic period.  Once Texas became a state, the people living in Texas began calling themselves Texans. 

[3] The frequency with which Texians used the word “depredation” has always fascinated me.

[4] This remarkable act may explain why there does not appear to be much of a record of Lieutenant Juan Calvi today.

[5] Thomas Mexico Thompson was a British-born sailing master who became a U.S. citizen in the early 1830s.  He was a tavern owner, commercial sea captain, and an officer in the Mexican Navy.  In 1835 his Mexican Navy rank was lieutenant. 

[6] Hawkins died of smallpox in 1837 while in New Orleans overseeing the refit of Independence.

[7] Santa Anna fancied himself as the Napoleon of the Americas.

[8] Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was personable, charismatic, and socially charming — but he was no genius. 

[9] Lending weight to the argument that had any of Santa Anna’s subordinates commanded the Mexican army, rather than Santa Anna, the Texas Revolution would have turned out much differently.

 

 


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Southwest, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Mexican Revolution, New Spain, Texas. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Texas Navy — Part 1

  1. Good stuff. I recently saw an alternate history novel of a modern Texan Navy

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.