Creating the Texas Navy

Summary

Summary

As tensions between Mexico and Texas increased during the Texas Revolution, the two sides decided to meet in a pitched battle between the merchant ship San Felipe and the Mexican raider Correo de Mejico on September 1, 1835. After this skirmish, Texas decided to protect its maritime interests by issuing Letters of Marque, government licenses authorizing privateers to capture enemy vessels. It was later deemed necessary for Texas to expand its strength and create its own navy to protect trade interests and supply lines in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, the provisional government purchased four ships that historians now refer to as the First Texas Navy.

Ships of the Texas Navy

  • Liberty – 70 tons; began her life as a successful privateer, the William Robbins, had a strong build for its small size.
  • Invincible – 100 tons; originally intended for the African slave trade; light and fast design.
  • Independence – 150 tons; originally a U.S. revenue cutter, she was similar to Brutus in design.
  • Brutus – 160 tons; slow under sail but largest ship in the Navy.

Opening Salvo

The first maritime engagement of the Texas Revolution occurred off the coast of Brazoria on September 1, 1835 between the San Felipe and the Correo de Mejico. The Correo had captured a ship as its prize. In response, a local steamship, the Laura, loaded with volunteers forced the Correo to abandon her prize through a concentrated effort of small arms fire. The Laura towed the prize into port and loaded men and munitions onto a newly arrived American cargo ship, the San Felipe. The Laura then towed the San Felipe into position where it made short work of the Correo and captured the ship. By occupying the Correo de Mejico for months in naval courts over accusations of piracy, Texas was able to remain open to receive supplies from the United States for the early part of the war .

Early Events

Early Events

International Relations

Seaborne trade to Texas was essential for Texan independence. During the movement for independence and as a young nation, Texas was not self-sufficient and depended on supplies from New Orleans to maintain its economy.

Most trade vessels coming to Texas were from the United States or Britain. The relationship between Texas and these two nations was tested several times when the Texas Navy seized ships from both nations. The most famous of these occasions became known as the “Pocket Incident.”

The Pocket Incident

The Invincible of the Texas Navy created an international incident when she captured a U.S. trader, the Pocket. Sent by a Mexican corporation named Lizardi & Company, the Pocket was found loaded with gun powder and other war materiel bound for Mexican forces. When the Invincible docked for repairs in New Orleans, the crew was arrested and charged with piracy by the Pocket’s insurance company. To diffuse the incident, Texas eventually paid for damages though it had justly captured a vessel aiding an enemy.

Horse Marines

In early 1836, a unique event occurred when a group of mounted Texas Rangers used guile to capture a Mexican vessel by signaling distress to an approaching ship. After the captain rowed ashore with several of his officers and men to help, the Rangers captured the “rescuers,” took their clothing, and rowed back to the merchant ship. While disguised, the rangers boarded and captured both the ship and the Mexican war materiel on board. They used similar tactics on two more ships earning them the nickname “Horse Marines” for their unique combination of mounted seamanship.

First Texas Navy

The First Texas Navy

Role In the War

As Texas moved towards independence, the First Texas Navy fought a number of engagements that made life difficult for the opposing Mexican Army. In fact the Mexican army was forced to leave Texas during the winter of 1835-1836 because they were unable to secure logistical support from the sea due to the presence of the Texas Navy.

In the spring of 1836, Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was able to successfully lead the Mexican Army back into Texas. However, that April the Texas Navy ensured that the Battle of San Jacinto was a decisive defeat for the Mexican army by preventing Santa Anna from receiving supplies and reinforcements by sea.

The Twin Sisters

In 1836, the people of Cincinnati, Ohio donated two six-pound cannon, nicknamed the “Twin Sisters” to support the Texas Revolution. The privateer Flash, one of the six original ships to receive official Texan Letters of Marque, not only delivered the cannon to General Sam Houston at San Jacinto, but also helped transport refugees from the Runaway Scrape and rescued the families of President David G. Burnet and Vice-President Lorenzo de Zavala just ten days before the Battle of San Jacinto.

Significance & Fate

After Santa Anna was captured, three of the four Texas Navy ships went to the ports of New Orleans and New York for repairs. It was during this time that the Mexican Navy went on the offensive and captured the lone Texan defender, the Independence.

Texas lost another ship the Liberty to creditors in New Orleans and almost lost the remaining two ships in the same manner. Luckily the Brutus and Invincible were saved by a well connected Englishman, Samuel Swartwout, with investments in Texas. These two remaining ships spent much of 1837 off Mexico capturing and looting vessels, materials, and even Mexican islands until they ran aground on their return to Galveston. By providing bait for the Mexican blockaders, the Brutus and Invincible successfully distracted the Mexican Navy and allowed supplies to pour into the new Republic of Texas.

Though not often remembered or well known in history, the First Texas Navy’s actions during and after the Texas Revolution contributed significantly to the success of the Texan Army, their resistance against Santa Anna’s Mexican forces, and the creation and supply of the young Texas Republic.

Samuel Swartwout

Samuel Swartwout was an Englishman with ties to Aaron Burr who bailed the Texas Navy out in order to protect a land grab scheme he had in Texas. Unfortunately the two ships he paid for were lost shortly thereafter having run aground.

Fortunate Texas

After the Texas Navy was destroyed, Mexico was unable to capitalize on its domination of the Gulf of Mexico. Beset by misfortunes, Mexico diverted its navy from blockading Texas to helping put down two revolutions in Mexico and to fighting the “Pastry War” with France, during which the French captured virtually all of the Mexican Navy. These distractions bought Texas some much needed time to recover and rebuild both its Navy and finances.

Second Texas Navy

The Second Texas Navy

With the election of President Mirabeau B. Lamar, Texas embarked on the creation of the Second Texas Navy and authorized $280,000 for its construction. This was a significant amount of money for the newly created republic which only received an estimated one million dollars in taxes each year.

Thus, the Texas Navy grew from nothing to include seven ships, six of which were commissioned to be built specifically for Texas. Lamar sought to obtain officers for this new navy based on merit and experience not political patronage. As a result, he recruited officers from the United States Navy to lead the new Texas Navy in its efforts to maintain Texan independence in the face of Mexican aggression and protect shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mexico.

Politics of the Texas Navy

Texas Presidents Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar held two opposing views on the direction Texas should go. Houston favored annexation into the United States while Lamar wanted Texas to remain a separate nation.

Houston tried to rein in the Republic’s expenditures and save money on both the army and navy. He even went so far as to attempt to sell the Texas Navy to gain some much needed capital. When Commodore Moore set sail rather than sell his navy, Houston later branded him a pirate and demanded his resignation.

Lamar by contrast, lavishly spent money to build up both branches of the military to help Texas expand its borders. This led to several ill-advised decisions such as the Santa Fe Expedition and resulted in a nation unable to pay its bills. By the end of his presidency, Texas was over four million dollars in debt while its income was a mere one million dollars.

However, Lamar’s tenure did create an alliance with the rebellious Mexican province of the Yucatan. This friendship helped finance the Texas Navy and bought valuable time for Texas while Mexico was forced to deal with its revolt to the south before it could turn its attention back on Texas.

Commodore Moore

Commodore Edwin Moore was instrumental in projecting Texan naval power into the Gulf of Mexico. Recruited by Lamar and frustrated by the glacial rate of promotion in the United States Navy, Moore took a commission as the commander of the Texas fleet. In 1841, Moore’s navy swept Mexican naval forces out of the Gulf and formed a de facto alliance with the Yucatan.

After a brief peace, Mexican troops raided deep into Texas. In retaliation, President Sam Houston called for a blockade of Mexican ports. When Houston withheld the funds to carry out the blockade, Moore found the Yucatan rebels willing to pay for the services of his navy. In a daring battle that pitted modern steam vessels against sail, he pulled off a strategic victory at the Battle of Campeche. The battle is notable as the only time in history where a sailing fleet defeated a steam fleet. Moore would later be charged with piracy by Houston for refusing to follow his orders and sell the fleet.

Texas Navy: Mercenaries or Pirates

The finances for the Second Texas Navy were so bad at times that Commodore Moore was forced to buy naval supplies with his own money. Once these funds were exhausted he had to use his personal credit. Desperate for money, Moore sailed for the Yucatan where the rebels paid his ships to fight against the Mexican Navy as mercenaries. This led President Houston to declare the Texas Navy to be pirates since Moore had not only declared war on Mexico without presidential approval but also had disobeyed a direct order to sell the Texas Navy.

Blockade

In 1842, Mexico launched a surprise raid into Texas that briefly captured San Antonio and threatened the capitol of Austin. The Texan response was to blockade Mexican ports. This action both hurt the Mexican economy and helped bring about the end of Mexican president Anastasio Bustamente’s reign.

Ships of the Navy

  • Austin – 600 ton sloop of war; sixteen 24 pdr. guns, two 18 pdr. guns, two long 18 pdr. guns.
  • Archer – 400 ton brig; fourteen 18 pdr guns, one long 9 pdr. pivot gun.
  • Wharton – 400 ton brig; fifteen 18 pdr. guns.
  • San Antonio – 170 ton schooner; four 12 pdr. one long 9 pdr. pivot gun.
  • San Bernard – 170 ton schooner; four 12 pdr. guns, one long 9 pdr. pivot gun.
  • San Jacinto – 170 ton schooner; four 12 pdr. guns.
  • Zavala – 550 ton steamer; originally the Charleston; one 9 pdr. long gun, four 12 pdr. medium guns.
Defense of the Republic

Defense of the Republic

Cruise of the Texas Navy

President Lamar sent the Texas Navy on a cruise through the Gulf of Mexico. The effect of the cruise was important on the international stage for Texas. First, it sped up Britain’s recognition of Texas as a nation. Second, it destabilized the political position of Mexico’s president Anastasio Bustamente, which would eventually lead to his overthrow. Third, it threatened Mexican shipping, which slowed trade and hurt the Mexican economy. Most importantly, it created an alliance with the rebellious Mexican province of Yucatan, which actually paid money to the cash strapped Texas Navy for protection. This alliance prevented Mexico from easily mounting a land or sea invasion of Texas, and forced Mexico to deal with the rebellion to their south before dealing with the Anglo rebels to the north.

Battle of Campeche

Strapped for cash, Commodore Moore looked to renew the alliance with the revolutionaries in the Yucatan. After briefly skirmishing and jockeying for position, two ships from the Texas Navy, the Austin and the Wharton battled against a reinforced Mexican fleet that included the modern steam powered ships, Guadelupe and Moctezuma. The Mexican fleet took a moderate amount of damage but had significantly higher casualties than the Texan fleet, while the Austin, the flagship of the Texan fleet, received a significant amount of damage. Both sides claimed victory, but the Mexican ships withdrew and the campaign to put down the Yucatan rebels was abandoned for a time. This intervention by the Texas Navy kept Mexico’s attention focused on re-conquering the Yucatan and away from Texas. It is also the only time in history when sailing ships beat the newer, faster, and more maneuverable steam ships!

Fate of the Ships

Following the battle of Campeche, the Texas Navy was largely confined to port due to limited finances. Other than maintaining a few caretakers for basic repairs, the Navy was effectively dissolved. Once transferred to the U.S. Navy following Texas Annexation in 1845, only the Austin was actually adopted by the U.S. Navy where it served for 2 years before being scrapped. The remaining five were sold to the highest bidder, which, in the case of the Wharton was only $55.

Texas Navy Revolver

The Texas Revolution became the proving ground for the groundbreaking Colt Patterson revolver. Originally bought for the Texas Navy, many found their way into the army where they served equally well. Colt was so pleased by the performance of his product that he engraved the scene of the victorious Texas naval battle fought off Campeche on May 16, 1843 on the cylinders of the 1851 Navy, 1860 Army, and 1861 Navy model Colts (in all, nearly 500,000 revolvers