The Texas Navy — Part 2

(Continued from Last Week)

The Second Texas Navy

In mid-1837, all Texas’ ships were either wrecked, captured, or seized by creditors — making Texas vulnerable to another Mexican invasion. Mexico’s effective blockade of the Texas coastline made any ship attempting to enter these waters subject to seizure.  Both immigration and shipping slowed to a trickle; even shippers willing to take the risk to get into Texas found they could not get insurance for their cargos.  Only the privateer Thomas Toby provided any meaningful harassment of Mexican vessels.

Fortunately for Texas, Mexico had its troubles during this period.  A dispute with France led to an incident called the “Pastry War,” in which the French seized Veracruz. Mexico’s effort to re-take the port city resulted in the Mexican army being thoroughly routed, the navy captured or destroyed, and General Santa Anna being severely wounded (losing a leg).  Soon after, Texans in Galveston gave French admiral Charles Baudin a hero’s welcome.

Meanwhile, the Congress of Texas authorized an expenditure of $280,000 (with plans to borrow an additional five million dollars) to buy new ships.  Congress appointed Samuel M. Williams as its agent to procure the new ships from Baltimore.  After arriving, he discovered that the loan had fallen through, but with the help of several benefactors (and congressional approval of issuing $500,000 in bonds), Williams was able to contract for the purchase of the side-wheel steamer Charleston (renamed Zavala) and arrange for the construction of one sloop of war, two brigs, and three schooners.  After Williams returned to Texas, Captain John G. Tod, a former U.S. Navy officer, replaced him in Baltimore.

The three schooners, San JacintoSan Antonio, and San Bernard, were all delivered in the summer of 1839; the brig Colorado (later renamed the Wharton) was delivered in October 1839.  The sloop and flagship of the line Austin sailed into Galveston in December 1839.  Finally, the brig Archer was delivered in April 1840.  Texas had a navy again.  And with Mexico still on the ropes after the Pastry War, Texas was poised to take command of the Gulf.

The Yucatán Rebellion

After his defeat at San Jacinto, Antonio López de Santa Anna retired from public life for a short time.  He re-emerged in 1838 to offer his leg to the French during the Pastry War.  For some reason, Mexican army officers regarded Santa Anna as a true hero of the Mexican Republic.  These officers may have shared Santa Anna’s view about the people of Mexico when in response to criticism, he said, “Say to Mr. Poinsett that it is very true that I threw up my cap for liberty with great ardor, and perfect sincerity, but very soon found the folly of it.  A hundred years to come, my people will not be fit for liberty.  They do not know what it is, unenlightened as they are, and under the influence of Catholic clergy, a despotism is a proper government for them — but there is no reason why it should not be a wise and virtuous one.”

In any case, Santa Anna consolidated his hold on the army after the Pastry War was settled and used it to make himself president of Mexico again.  Several Mexican states were deeply resentful of the dictatorial methods of the central government.  In May 1838, an insurrection began in Yucatán, and in 1840 the local assembly approved a declaration of independence for the state.  Santa Anna’s representative, Andrés Quintana Roo, negotiated a treaty to keep Yucatán in the Mexican union, but Santa Anna soon violated the treaty.  In response, the Yucatecan governor ordered all Mexican flags hauled down and replaced with the flag of the new Republic of Yucatán.  The assembly drafted a new constitution based on the Mexican Constitution of 1824, which had also been a rallying point for the Texas revolution.

The Yucatecans allied with Texas to fight against the Mexican naval blockade of Yucatán’s ports, though the embargo still severely impacted Yucatán’s economy.  In 1843, Yucatecans defeated the Mexican army when it tried to reimpose central rule.  They took this opportunity to negotiate a return to the Mexican union under the conditions that they could retain their self-rule and constitution.  Once again, Santa Anna violated the agreement, and Yucatán declared its independence again in 1846, remaining neutral during the U.S.-Mexican War.

In 1847, the Mayan Indian people launched a significant uprising against Hispanic rule in Yucatán.  The so-called Caste War drove all Hispanic Yucatecans off the peninsula except for a couple of walled compounds.  The Yucatecans appealed for international help in putting down the uprising.  Eventually, Mexico came to the rescue, and Yucatán again became part of Mexico in 1848.  The Mayan uprising continued in earnest for more than 50 years, with skirmishes into the 1930s.

The Tabasco Incident

The U.S. Navy of 1838 was small, technologically out-of-date, and offered dismally slow promotions. In 1838, a squadron of United States warships, including the sloop-of-war Boston, put into Galveston.  Aboard Boston was Lieutenant Edwin Ward Moore, a stocky, congenial 28-year-old fluent in English and Spanish. Lieutenant Moore, who had a brother living in Texas, was captivated by Texas’ efforts to start a new navy from scratch.  Moore decided to take a risk and offer his services to the Republic of Texas.  So, in 1839 he resigned from the U.S. Navy to accept an appointment as commodore of the new Texas fleet.   Moore wasn’t the only officer to abandon the American navy.  In total, 90 officers of the new Texas Navy also migrated from the U.S. Navy.

The first job for Moore and his officers was to obtain sailors and marines to man the new ships.  Moore traveled to New York, where he recruited at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, promising adventure, and prize money for all who joined the Texan cause.  With some drill, these men would be ready to fight Mexico and take command of the Gulf.

In Texas in the spring of 1840, Moore found that the Navy had been caught up in a political battle between President Mirabeau B. Lamar and his arch-enemy, former president Sam Houston, now serving in the Texas Congress.  Lamar was an anti-Indian expansionist, while Houston was an Indian lover who was happy with Texas the way it was.  Houston and his followers in the Texas legislature had already engineered severe cutbacks in the Texas army and were then setting their sights on the Navy.  Moore knew that Texas had already spent almost a million dollars on its new navy (at the time, an astronomical fortune).  From his reception in Galveston, Moore judged that the Navy and its proposed mission to Mexico was popular among most Texans.  He misjudged Houston’s effectiveness as a politician, however.

In June 1840, Commodore Moore led the flagship Austin, Zavala, and three schooners to Mexico to support secret peace negotiations between Texas and Mexico.  Moore, who had little faith in the negotiating process, became eager to deal the Mexican government a blow that would force them to recognize Texas independence and renounce their claims.  He began blockading the Mexican coastline off Tampico, stopping all seaborne communications.

By the time fall arrived in 1840, Moore had two choices: fish or cut bait.  As he predicted, Tex-Mex peace negotiations had fallen apart, but by then, the Texas Navy was low on food and fuel.  San Jacinto had run aground and was in immediate need of salvage.  Moore needed cash to address these problems.  As a man of action, he sailed Austin, Zavala, and San Bernard 90 miles up the Tabasco River to San Juan Bautista.  Moore made a common cause with Yucatán rebels fighting the Mexican government there.  Moore agreed to help the rebels capture the town in exchange for a payment of $25,000.  The town surrendered without a shot, but Moore had to seize two Yucatecan vessels and hold them for ransom before getting his money.  The Texan Navy then hosted a dance for the city, then departed for home in January 1841.

The Yucatán Alliance

During Moore’s absence, Texas had achieved hard-won recognition from Great Britain.  Moore wanted to repair and recruit quickly in New Orleans and then continue to press Mexico by sea.  But President Lamar decided instead to pull back and allow Britain to try to negotiate a settlement between Texas and Mexico.  President Lamar ordered Moore to put most of his ships “in ordinary” in Galveston (lay them up for repairs and discharge most seamen).

Commodore Moore’s next senior officer was Commander John G. Tod, who commanded the naval facility in Galveston.  He was also the officer who had taken over the supervision of shipbuilding in Baltimore and was quite proud of his achievements.  So, it is understandable that Tod deeply resented Moore’s criticism of weak anchor chains, rotting masts, awkward rigging, and other evidence of shoddy workmanship.  Commander Tod thus became an enemy of Commodore Moore and, perhaps, for this reason, supported Lamar’s decision to mothball the Texas Navy.

Commodore Moore did persuade President Lamar to lay up only the steamship Zavala and allow him to keep the rest of the Navy busy with a survey of the Texas coast.  During his visit with Lamar, Moore secured over $100,000 in promissory notes and government bonds to pay his crews.  Since Texas had no money, the bonds were little more than IOUs, and as soon as Moore was back in Galveston, he received a letter asking him to return the notes.  Moore declined, replying that he had already used them to persuade the sailors to sign for more duty.  To Moore’s credit, the work accomplished by the Texas Navy that spring resulted in the first accurate navigation charts of the Gulf of Mexico.  As a result, shipping losses plummeted, and insurance rates for ships going to Texas dropped.  It was a much-needed boost to the Texas economy.

In the meantime, President Mirabeau B. Lamar and his secretary of state, Samuel A. Roberts, had become disillusioned with any prospect of peace with Santa Anna’s government.  Mexico had rebuffed Texas, and the British negotiators had become corrupt in attempting to purchase two Mexican warships.  At the same time that Lamar was launching the ill-fated Santa Fe expedition (see also: Texas Treasures), he entered secret negotiations with Colonel Martin F. Peraza of Yucatán to ally against Mexico.  As long as Yucatán remained in rebellion, Mexico would be unable to mount a fresh invasion of Texas.

In September 1841, Lamar and Peraza struck a deal, announced at a grand ball at the Capitol in Austin.  Yucatán would pay Texas $8,000 a month for the services of three ships to defend its coast against Mexican raiding, and the two upstart republics would split the proceeds from any prizes seized.

Commodore Moore was placed in command of the operation.  His orders were to capture Mexican towns and compel ransom payments.  To force the inhabitants to make the payments, he was authorized to destroy public works and seize public property.  But for the operation to work, time was of the essence.  Sam Houston had just been elected to another term as president, and Lamar and Moore feared he would rescind the deal as soon as he took office.  On 13 December 1841, the day Houston was sworn in as president, the AustinSan Antonio, and San Bernard sailed for Sisal, Yucatán.  As expected, Houston issued an order recalling, but it was too late.  For the moment, the navy was gone and beyond the president’s reach.  Moore knew his mission was flying in the face of Houston’s disapproval.  He wrote bitterly to his friend, General Albert Sidney Johnston, that he expected to be recalled and subjected to vicious political attacks.

When Moore arrived in Yucatán, he found the Yucatecans were negotiating with Mexico to end the rebellion.  Moore recognized that peace between the two would re-introduce the threat of a Mexican invasion of South Texas.  He persuaded the Yucatecans to keep their commitment to Texas until they could ensure that Mexico and Santa Anna were sincere about wanting peace.  He sent  San Antonio back to Texas with a full report on the situation for President Houston.  He requested that Houston authorize the repair of the steamship Zavala and ordered south to shore up Texan control of the coast.  Houston never sent the ship because, at that time, steamship technology was dangerous, and the Texas Navy had no one qualified to serve as the ship’s engineer.  Even though Yucatán offered to pay for the repairs, Houston refused.  President Houston preferred that Zavala instead be allowed to rot — which it did.  Ever spiteful, Houston declined to sell Zavala’s engines to help raise money for the rest of the fleet.

Meanwhile, Commodore Moore remained active in the Gulf of Mexico, capturing several Mexican ships to keep his navy afloat.  It was at this time that Moore received word of several disasters that, to him, confirmed that a more active course was needed.  First, he received news of the appalling mistreatment of the prisoners of the Santa Fe Expedition.  Second, Mexico had launched a land assault into Texas, temporarily recapturing San Antonio.  Although Moore didn’t know it, Houston had approved a Texas blockade of the Mexican coast — but Moore was doing that anyway.  Moore continued to wreak havoc on Mexican shipping near Veracruz until April 1842, when he ran low on money and provisions.  These conditions occurred at about the same time his crews’ enlistments were getting ready to expire.


After delivering Commodore Moore’s report to the President of Texas, San Antonio proceeded to New Orleans for repair work.  On February 11, 1842, with San Antonio’s principal officers on shore leave, several seamen got into a drunken argument with Lieutenant Charles Fuller.  Fearing disorderly conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline, Lieutenant Fuller ordered his marine guard to arms.  Unhappily, the sergeant of marines agreed with the sailors and turned on Fuller with a tomahawk.  After being seriously wounded, marines and sailors shot him to death and mutilated his body.  The mutineers escaped the ship but were soon apprehended and jailed in New Orleans.  Placing these men in jail did nothing for Lieutenant Fuller, however. 

Blood Feud

In the spring of 1842, while Moore was in New Orleans attending to the repairs of his ships, he received orders to return to the Gulf.  Moore met with President Sam Houston and Secretary of War Hockley in Galveston in May.  By then, the naval station was in shambles.  For example, there was no fence to keep cattle and horses out of the naval property, the powder magazine was defective, and local citizens looted the facility of tools, lumber, and other hardware.  It had become a graveyard for rotting ships.

The term “toxic environment” wasn’t used in those days, but that’s what it was, especially after Commodore Moore learned that President Houston would not release $20,000 in discretionary money allocated to the Navy by the Texas Congress.  Houston was publicly calling for volunteers to avenge the mistreatment of the men of the Santa Fe Expedition and for sacking San Antonio, but Moore simply could not understand Sam Houston.  Houston rescinded his order to blockade the Gulf Coast of Mexico just nineteen days after issuing it.  After telling Moore to lead an invasion into Tampico, he failed to call Congress into session to approve it.  It is also notable that by this time, Moore and his officers had been serving Texas for two years and had yet to receive their first paycheck or commission.  Under Sam Houston, the Texas Navy had two serious problems: rotting ships and deserting sailors. 

It may be an understatement to suggest that Commodore Moore despised Houston.  In July 1842, Moore personally assaulted Houston, accusing him of “humbug.” Moore considered resigning in utter disgust of Houston and his cabal in the legislature.  Later, Moore explained that he did not resign because he still had hope for the enterprise.  In preparation for the Tampico expedition, Moore used his money and credit to provision Austin, San Antonio, San Bernard, and Wharton.  Moore was counting on the hope of prize money and further assistance from Yucatán as a funding source for the Texas Navy.

Meanwhile, Commodore Moore was in New Orleans without funds or crews for his remaining ships in the Texas Navy.  Houston ordered Moore to proceed to Mexico and prey upon Mexican warships.  It would be a neat trick without crews or vessels, but Houston also informed Moore that if he could not find funding, he was to return Texas’ ships to Galveston.  Without crews, that too would be a neat trick.  Moore was running out of time, and everyone knew it.  At the same time, Houston sent a secret message to the Speaker of the Texas House denouncing Moore and accusing him of misconduct with funds authorized by Congress to fund the Texas Navy.

However, this is not how the Texas Navy’s fate would play out.  San Bernard and Archer became storm-wrecked, San Antonio was lost while off the coast of Yucatán, and Merchant sank.  In the meantime, a Mexican force had once again sacked San Antonio.  Great Britain made another insincere offer to broker peace between Texas and Mexico.  It was insincere because the British had become full partners with the Mexican Navy — including assigning British seamen to Mexican warships.  What the British wanted more than peace was domination over regional trade, increased influence in Central America, and keeping Texas from joining the United States.  President Houston, however, accepted the British offer — playing the British against the United States.  More than anything else, Houston wanted the United States to annex Texas.

When Commodore learned of Houston’s treachery, he was outraged.  He had already accrued $35,000 in personal debt to keep the Texas Navy afloat.  Nevertheless, Moore dispatched a pilot boat and a schooner to Yucatán in another attempt to find aid there.  This time, the message got through.  The Yucatecans were interested and sent Colonel Peraza to agree, similar to the one they had with President Lamar two years earlier.  Again, for $8,000 a month, Moore and the Texas Navy would break the Mexican blockade of Yucatán and continue to patrol Yucatecan waters until Mexican forces left the area.

With his funding crisis resolved, at least for the time being, Moore planned to sail for Yucatán in February 1843.  Stores and food were quickly loaded onto the ships. Moore’s crew members were a dangerous lot, however, but he was desperate.  Just as Moore was about to sail, two of Houston’s commissioners arrived to inform him that (a) Moore was fired and (b) Houston wanted the remaining ships sold immediately.

No other person in history may be more steadfast in his devotion to Texas than Edwin Moore.  He informed Houston’s commissioners that (a) he would not be dismissed and (b) they couldn’t have the ships.  He showed the commissioners that his ships were in good repair and ready for action.  He told them that he was under an obligation to Yucatán to render the promised assistance and that the men would doubtless riot and burn the ships if they were told that they would not receive any pay and prize money.  Moore then offered the commissioners a bargain: Moore would accept their authority if they would first allow him to go to Galveston and answer Sam Houston’s charges in person.  The commissioners agreed.  Commodore Moore sailed for Galveston on 15 April 1843. 

The story winds down

Sam Houston, born in 1793, was one of those early Americans who objected to the idea of a standing military or naval organization.  He felt that citizen militias were preferable to professional sailors and soldiers.  Rather than maintain a standing navy, Houston wanted shore batters manned by civilians who could just as easily repel any amphibious invasion from Mexico.  In the 1830s and 1840s, Houston’s ideas were in the mainstream.  In contrast, Edwin Moore was ahead of his time.

But Houston had no love for the naval service, either.  As a professional politician and a Washington insider, he shared the view of many that the United States (and later, Texas) did not need to maintain an expensive naval establishment.  Worse, though, Houston opposed the Texas Navy because he hated Mirabeau B. Lamar with a passion seldom seen in rational men.

More to the point of the Texas Navy, however, is that Sam Houston wanted Texas to become part of the United States more than he wished for the Texas Republic.  His dream of annexation played the greatest role in destroying the Texas Navy.  His behavior in this regard made many Texans wonder if Sam Houston was sane.  Certainly, Edwin Moore must have questioned Houston’s sanity — with justification.  But it was more than the naval issue.  Houston stopped the Texas army from pursuing the Mexican military after sacking San Antonio.  He made no move to replenish the army’s supply of weapons and munitions after the Santa Fe disaster.  He seemed not to care what happened to the people of Texas.  He only wanted annexation.

Some will argue that there was a method to Houston’s madness.  Public opinion in the southern United States favored Texas annexation — northern politicians opposed it.  Scholars say that Houston was playing a dangerous game by deliberately placing Texas in jeopardy so that the American public would demand intervention to save Texas and put Texas firmly on the road to annexation.  As an early but staunch Democrat, Houston believed in the principle of creating a crisis as the first step in solving it.

In essence, Houston feared that if Edwin Moore were allowed to defeat Mexico, thus avoiding a crisis inside Texas, the chances of annexation to the United States would decrease.  By pitting Britain and the United States against each other in secret diplomacy, even as Mexico prepared to launch a major invasion of Texas, Houston was about to get the crisis he needed to provoke the United States into making a move.  The crisis did arrive a bit late.  Historians would later refer to it as the Mexican-American War.

Yucatán Revisited

Near the mouth of the Mississippi, Commodore Moore encountered the American schooner Rosario, which had recently departed from Yucatán and was full of news.  The war between Mexico and Yucatán had taken a turn in favor of the Yucatecans, and Mexico was about to agree to a peaceful withdrawal.  If that happened, Mexican warships would be free to launch an assault against Galveston. Moore’s choices were these: (a) proceed to Yucatán and fight the Mexican navy (with the help of Yucatán gunboats) or (b) return to Galveston with Morgan and wait to be attacked.

Houston’s naval commissioners, Colonel James Morgan (formerly Commandant of Galveston) and William Bryan (Texas Consul to New Orleans), both ultimately agreed with Commodore Moore (against Houston, who appointed them).  With their backing, Moore changed course and headed directly for Yucatan.[1]

On the morning of 30 April,  Austin and Wharton engaged six Mexican vessels off the coast of Lerma, Mexico.  Two Yucatecan ships plus five small gunboats joined the Texans.  The two sides exchange one broadside after another for the entire morning with no victory discernible.  Finally, the Mexican fleet withdrew, and, in pursuit, Austin ran aground (floated free at high tide).  Colonel James Morgan, a witness to the fight, gave high marks to Moore, his officers, and crew.

Later in the day, nearing Campêche, Moore rejoined the battle with two Mexican steamers.  Two sailors were killed and three wounded aboard Wharton, but the Mexicans lost twenty-one killed and thirty wounded.  Despite their losses, the Texans were exhilarated by their performance.  They spent the next two weeks stalking the wounded Mexican ships, hoping to finish them off.

Two weeks later, on 16 May 1843, Commodore Moore reengaged three Mexican warships (GuadalupeEagle, and Moctezuma).  At one point in the battle, Moore took the Austin directly between the Moctezuma and the Guadalupe, attempting to close with them. Moore’s bravery in this instance significantly damaged Austin, with three men killed and twenty-one wounded.  Wharton escaped damage but lost two men in a gun mishap.  The Mexicans had the worst of it, losing 183 men killed.  Some scholars argue that this series of battles is the only example of the victory of sail over steam.

After Colonel Morgan went ashore at Campêche, he received instructions from Houston to have Moore placed into irons, if possible.  On 6 May, Houston issued a public proclamation in Texas denouncing Moore for mutiny, treason, and piracy.  In the declaration, Houston charged Moore with disobeying Texas law.  Houston ordered Morgan to suspend Moore from duty and return him to Texas for court-martial.  By this time, Morgan had become an ally of Edwin Moore.  The two men decided to return to Texas and hold Houston to his word.  Moore would insist on a public trial.

The Court-martial

Commodore Moore began his return to Texas on 25 June 1843.  He arrived in Galveston on 14 July, receiving a hero’s welcome.  Moore had defended Texas from a possible disaster, and the people loved him for it.  Texans had far less regard for Sam Houston, whom they burned in effigy.  At this stage, Moore was exhausted and deeply angry — he displayed no outward joy in celebrating his successes.

For his part, Houston remained unmoved by the outpouring of public support.  The seamen were dismissed, Colonel Morgan was fired as commissioner, and Commodore Moore received a dishonorable discharge from the Texas Navy. Commander John Lothrop, commanding Wharton, received a similar discharge along with one of Moore’s lieutenants. Houston’s dismissal letter repeated the charges of disobedience and piracy and added a charge of murder for executing the San Antonio mutineers.

Edwin Moore publicly repudiated Houston’s letter and demanded a judicial hearing.  Houston ignored these demands.  Finally, a congressional investigation cleared Moore of all charges and ordered that such a trial be held.  All but three Texas naval officers resigned in protest of Moore’s treatment.  Since no naval officers existed to hear the case, the court, when convened, consisted of army officers, with Major General Sidney Sherman serving as the senior officer.  

Moore’s trial began on 21 August 1844.  He was charged with willful neglect of duty, misapplication of money, embezzlement of public property, fraud, disobedience to orders, contempt for and defiance of the laws of Texas, treason, and murder.

The Sherman court quickly acquitted Snow and dropped the charges against Lothrop (who died a few days later from a yellow fever epidemic in Galveston).   The trial of Edwin Moore lasted seventy-two days.  In the end, the court convicted Moore on four minor counts of disobedience.  Houston and the rest of Texas considered the final verdict a complete victory for Moore.  Ever the vindictive cuss, Sam Houston vetoed the findings of the court.

The Texas Navy’s ships were kept in repairs for two additional years.  After Texas’ annexation to the United States in late 1845, the remaining vessels — AustinWhartonArcher, and San Bernard — were all transferred to the United States Navy.

Despite repeated applications, none of the Texas Navy officers were granted commissions in the United States Navy.  In 1857, the surviving officers were given five years’ back pay to demonstrate the State of Texas’ appreciation of their service.  Commodore Moore moved to New York and pursued a claim for reimbursement for the debts he incurred while in the service of the Republic of Texas.  Eventually, Texas settled with him for $44,655.


[1] Before leaving New Orleans, Moore brought on board Austin eight of the mutineers from San Antonio and court-martialed them.  The court acquitted one man, pardoned another, sentenced two men to 100 lashes, and found four men guilty in the murder of Lieutenant Fuller.  They were hung and their bodies thrown into the sea. 





About Mustang

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

2 Responses to The Texas Navy — Part 2

  1. That was very enlightening. I got a totally different view of Houston than I previously had (which was very cursory).


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