Texas Navy

During the period of 1839 to 1846 in Texas history, the infant Republic built and powered a small force of naval vessels against the new nation of Mexico. As with the majority of all wars, navies are never the main military power that settles the conflict but are the strongest of contributors (Wells 2.) This occurred in the Texas War of Independence, where the Texas Navy has little indication in text but was an important asset to the victory. Reasons for such an asset being overlooked are based upon the notable actions that took place ashore in the heroic defense of the Alamo and the victorious battle of San Jacinto lead by the Commander in Chief of the Texas Republic, Sam Houston (Davis 56.) Also, the lack of dramatic sea battles with the few vessels employed in the navy was another reason for their accomplishments to go unnoticed (Navy Department 2.) Above all the importance of seapower was but little understood during the time period and was not fully appreciated until the late 19th century after the publicized works of Mahan were noted by the powers of the world (Wells i.) As understood by the former Commodore of the Navy, Moore, “the Texas Navy was the difference between a Texas reconquered by Mexico in 1843 and a Texas Republic admitted into the Union in 1846 (Navy Department 1.)”
The citizens of Texas revolted in the autumn of 1835 because of reasons of race, religion, and the type of government the former United State immigrants believed in not being as effective as the traditional Spanish – Indian civilization faced in their new home. Most importantly, the citizens looked to disband from Mexico because of cruel maritime regulations and unreasonable tariffs placed within the Gulf of Mexico that held the citizens at check from becoming prosperous but filled the nation’s treasury. This cruel treatment of the American immigrants was based on ineffective administration and the internal strife of the Mexican government that caused discontent among those recent arrivals (1.)
An inflammatory incident that struck the match of the war was the capture of the Correo de Mejico by the American merchant ship San Felipe and the steam tug Laura near Brazoria. On boarding the Mexican vessel, the captain of the San Felipe accused the Mexican captain of piracy when he could not produce a commission and so took the vessel and its crew to New Orleans to be placed before a Republic court. The court delayed the Mexican crew for three months before they had to be released by Mexican demand. During this incident the Texas coast was free of Mexican vessels and gave the Republic the chance to stock up on munitions and recruit volunteers from the United States to help aid in the revolt. Without a strong seapower to free the coast of Mexican influence, the Republic used the incident with the courts to give them the trade they needed to prepare for the war (5.)
Even though the Mexican Navy did have available ships in the northern waters to replace the Correo de Mejico, the productive activity of several Texan privateers kept the Mexican ships busy along the coastline. A few privateers heroically recaptured American vessels from Mexican control for having cannons and other rebellious contraband (5.)
The Correo de Mejico incident and the success of Texas privateers aroused the Mexican public and were contributing factors leading to the invasion of Texas territory by Lopez de Santa Anna in 1836, but the Mexican President’s actions were too late. Patriotism flowed into the United States and adventurers volunteered to fight in the war along-side the Republic and merchant companies brought their own arms and equipment in vessels to add to the growing forces of the Republic. President Lopez de Santa Anna lead his invasion made up of three pronged attack on all Anglo-American settlements in his path as he struck towards the heart of the Texan territory (6.)
During this time, Texas began the building of its own Navy. By the authorization of the provisional general council the Texas Navy was to be made up of four schooners. The first ship to be commissioned was the former United States treasury cutter Ingham, and was rechristened Independence. The second ship was twice as large as the Independence and was commissioned as the Brutus. Another ship that joined the Navy was the William Robbins but was renamed the Liberty. A fourth warship named the Invincible was commissioned as a member of the fleet. These four vessels made up the early fleet of the Texas Navy and were crucial elements of the Republic in preserving their independence (6.)
The first action seen by the new fleet was when the Liberty was on a semipiratical cruise to the Yucatan and encountered the Mexican merchant schooner Pelican and captured her. The vessel laid a prize concealed within its cargo of 300 kegs of powder and other military supplies. The ship was ran aground at Matagorda, but the cargo was salvaged and later used to defeat President Lopez de Santa Anna and his forces in the San Jacinto campaign. Later, the Liberty captured an American brig Durango that was loaded with powder and supplies and was falsely manifested. The cargo was appropriated and the vessel was destroyed. At the same time, the Invincible seized an American brig Pocket that contained contraband materials while under a false manifest to the Mexican Army near the Rio Grande. The charter on the vessel also stated that a secondary shipment of Mexican troops was to be taken to the Corpus Christi area. Sometime after Pocket was purchased by the Republic of Texas and the vessel was commissioned in the Texas Navy as the cargo helped defeat the Mexicans (7.)
The naval victories were a much needed source of strength that would help combat the Mexican Army that were driving right into Texas uncontested, because Santa Anna was moving his forces along the coast in efforts to use the sea lanes to provide his army with logistic support. The activity of the small Texas Navy kept Santa Anna waiting on his needed supplies that never would arrive and a way of escape in sea vessels that could not arrive with the Texas Navy fending them off. General Sam Houston saw the advantage that may not come again and moved in on the President and penned the Mexican forces against the Buffalo Bayou and destroyed them while capturing Santa Anna himself. The activity of the small Texas Navy proved to be the difference between victory and defeat for the outnumbered Republic forces (9.)
After the surrender of the Mexican forces the “little mighty fleet (8)” continued its operations along the Texas coast. Although Liberty was unable to meet her refitting bills and was sold to satisfy her creditors-an event which illustrated the shoestring budget under which the Texas Navy was forced to work despite the demands it was expected to achieve. The final three vessels began a blockade of Matamoros near the mouth of the Rio Grande to interfere with any attempts by the Mexican Army to return to Texas (10.)
Sometime later, the Secretary of the Texas Navy commanded the Brutus and the Invincible to sea to confront any Mexican vessels they encounter and regain power in the Gulf. The smaller fleet claimed the Mujeres Islands off the coast of Yucatan and stocked up on an abundant supply of turtles without paying for the cargo. Then in the Gulf the Texas Navy captured five small Mexican vessels: Union, Telegrafo, Adventure, Rafaelita, and Correo de Tabasco. Sailing some of the Mexican vessels containing prized crews and burning the ones that did not, the fleet headed back for the Texas coast. There the lasting two vessels of the Texas Navy were destroyed in an unfortunate battle with two large-gunned Mexican vessels, the Iturbide and Libertador, near the Channel of Galveston Island. The two Texas vessels were attacked while the Invincible was anchored offshore waiting for high tide and Brutus entering the Channel. The Invincible ran aground in the poorly chartered channel into Galveston and Brutus beached inside the harbor while trying to aid her sister ship. The vessels were later broken up by heavy storms and thus ended the last two ships of the early Texas Navy (11.)
Without any naval forces to defend the Republic, Texas was saved by two circumstances beyond her control. The internal trouble in Mexico grew and required a concentration of security forces near home and less efforts to retake the Republic. Also, the Pastry War between France and Mexico caused Mexico to lose most all her warships to the stronger naval power of France which made Texas and Mexico on the same terms in seapower (11.)
Following the end of the early Texas Navy the Republic found itself a new president who looked to expand his seapower and armed forces to whatever sized was needed to protect the state. With the diplomatic recognition of European powers Texas created a new Navy. The new Navy started off with first class warships and professional officers. The Navy consisted of six well designed, built, and rigged vessels that were delivered from Baltimore in 1840. In addition, Texas purchased a large paddlewheel steamer named Charleston but was later rechristened Zavala after the first Texas Vice President. The vessel was extremely difficult to maintain with problems ranging from maintenance to an experienced engineer to operate her expertly. The vessel was a very important addition to the Navy squadron because of the capability it gave them to operate in rivers and calm weathered seas (11.)
The Texas Navy was appointed a new commander, Captain Edwin Ward Moore, a veteran of fourteen years as an officer in the United States Navy. Moore was a dynamic leader and fighter that believed that Texas maintained their independence with their power in the sea. Moore dominated the fleet and the histories of both are relatively inseparable (12.)
The new Texas Navy consisted of the ships Austin, Zavala, San Bernard, San Antonio, and San Jacinto that were had crews that were outfitted and trained by the fiery Moore. From there Moore persuaded the President to allow him to push Mexico out of Texas waters and send a message to them in the process. The first action taken by Moore and his squadron was the towing of the Austin and San Bernard up the Tabasco River. There they forced the surrender of 600 soldiers defending the city of San Juan Bautista. Moore received $25,000 for sparing the city. The San Antonio took three vessels at sea which one of them sold for $7,000 at a later date. The squadron returned in late 1840 from their expeditions with the San Jacinto and Zavala both defeated from weather accidents and being unable to be repaired (12.)
In 1841, Moore traveled along the Texas coastal waters surveying in the San Antonio because the former charts were so inaccurate that one-fourth of the British merchant vessels trading on the coast had been wrecked (14.)
Finally, in late 1841 the President of Texas, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, determined that an aggressive military of strong sea-land assaults on Mexico would bring about Texas independence quicker. Moore then sailed his fleet toward Yucatan where they successfully patrolled off Vera Cruz. The squadron challenged several smaller Mexican warships and captured four Mexican merchant vessels. Even though the conquest was a total success the Navy was humiliated upon return to Galveston. There the new elected President, Sam Houston, ordered the fleet to New Orleans to be overhauled but was never funded for the repairs. A personal conflict grew between Commander Moore and President Houston that ensued well after the annexation of Texas into the Union. Houston planned to be annexed by the United States and used the power of his office to prevent Moore to power the Navy against Mexico and force Mexico to recognize the independence of Texas. Moore tried every means possible to return his squadron back into battle, while publicly proclaiming the support of his president. To no success, Moore watched as Mexico rebuilt its Navy during 1842 and the Texas Navy decline to only two sea-worthy vessels, the Austin and the Wharton (17.).
The revitalized Mexican Army and Navy undertook the task of reconquering their wayward provinces and it was reported by British and American observers that Texas would be subjugated by late 1843. Houston granted Moore permission to aid the Yucatan against the strong Mexican Navy, but Houston privately acted on the premise that Texas was too poor to support a Navy and that an offensive would only antagonize Mexico at a time he was negotiating with the United States and Great Britain for their help in securing a peace (18.)
Moore received financial help from the Yucatan and local businessman to get the Austin and Wharton underway in 1843. The odds were in the favor of the Mexican Navy who had larger guns and more of them and most of all had the range of fire over the combined Yucatan and Texas navies. Moore was not to be discouraged, he was to set the fate of Texas in heroic fashion and with whatever vessels and weapons he can obtain. The day of battle came when Moore received intelligence that a steamer of the Mexican Navy was embarking troops alone at Telchac. The battle turned out to be between the Texas-Yucatan forces and five Mexican sailing vessels and two steamers. The battle ensued throughout the day with several cease fires opened back up within hours. At the end of the first squirmish, the Texas-Yucatan forces suffered two killed and three wounded hands. Spy reports spoke of Mexican losses to be over twenty hands in all. The whole action was not decisive but accomplished freeing the Campeche from siege and permit coastal vessels to enter under the protection of Moore’s guns (19.)
The conflict was delayed for over fifteen days while the winds were unfavorable to the Texas-Yucatan vessels and both oppositions had to make repairs and restock munitions and supplies. Morning breezes rekindled the conflict as the Austin and Wharton moved toward the Mexican steamers. Unfortunately the Texas ships were suddenly becalmed and the Mexican steamers moved in on the two ships and unloaded their explosive rounds just out of range of the Moore’s guns. But a small puff of wind noticed by the fiery Commander brought the vessels back into the battle as they surprised the steamers by moving in between them and unloading their guns as Moore forced them down the coast. After Moore’s fired off over 530 rounds on the Mexican fleet the Austin and Wharton both returned to Campeche. Then, on May 26th, word reached Moore that President Houston had declared the cruise illegal and castigated the Commodore as a pirate, murderer, mutineer, and embezzler. Moore replied with what he hoped was enough proof to justify his actions and a week after that the Mexican Navy withdrew the siege from Campeche. Praise was rewarded to Commodore Moore as he halted the invasion of Texas and the conquest of Yucatan by Mexico. Later, the United States and Great Britain secured a truce between Texas and Mexico that endured throughout the existence of the Lone Star Republic (22.)
Commodore Moore was dismissed from duty by Houston on return to Galveston and the Texas Navy existed for three more years, under the protection of United States soldiers and sailors. When Texas was annexed by the United States the Austin, Archer, Wharton, and San Bernard were transferred to the U.S. Navy but were scrapped in 1848 because of their poor conditions (25.)
The contributions of the Texas Navy to the Republic were more important than contemporarily understood. During the revolution, the Navy fought off blockaders, interrupted Mexican supply lines, and provided the opportunity for the victory at San Jacinto. And in 1843, the Navy thwarted a well-organized, full-scale invasion of Yucatan that would have led to reinvasion and possible reconquest of Texas. Most of all, the Texas Navy set a tradition for aggressive, bold, and imaginative action which paved the way in future American traditions in warfare (25.)
Davis, Joe T. Legendary Texians. Burnet: Eakin Press, 1982.

Naval History Division. The Texas Navy. Washington, D.C. 1968.

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Robinson, Admiral Samuel M. A Brief History of the Texas Navies. Houston: Sons of the Republic of Texas, 1961.
Wells, Tom H. Commodore Moore and the Texas Navy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1960.