The Blockade and San Luis Pass
At the west end of Galveston Island lies San Luis Pass, a half-mile-wide channel between West Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Deep-draft vessels could not get safely over the bar across its entrance, but it was a popular spot for smaller, mostly sailing vessels running in and out of West Bay. And consequently, it was a headache for the U.S. Navy, that never seemed to have enough ships to watch every part of the coast continuously.
A little after noon on April 5, 1862, lookouts aboard the screw steamer USS Montgomery spotted a large schooner anchored inside San Luis Pass. Montgomery’s commander, Lieutenant Charles Hunter, decided on a ruse and hoisted a British ensign at the peak and a Confederate flag at his foremast, making as if he wanted to communicate with the Confederate battery on shore. In due course, a boat from the nearby fort set out for the “British” ship anchored off the bar; Hunter had the nine men aboard quickly hustled down below as prisoners. Around sunset, he sent the captured boat, along with Montgomery’s whaleboat, across the bar with orders to capture or destroy the schooner. The boats tried to get in past the Confederate battery in the darkness without being seen, but they were spotted, and the troops on shore opened fire. None of the Union sailors was hit, and now they began pulling hard at the oars to get alongside the schooner. They succeeded in taking the schooner’s seven-man crew completely by surprise, despite the gunfire from the fort. The schooner turned out to be Columbia, of Galveston, loaded with cotton and ready to sail for Jamaica. As the Union sailors were preparing to get Columbia under way, a sloop appeared out of the darkness and came alongside. In it were Columbia’s master and seven passengers from Galveston, who intended to sail in her to Jamaica. These, too, became prisoners. The officer in charge of the expedition, Acting Master Thomas Pickering, now had to deal with other problems. Both tide and wind were streaming against them, making it difficult or impossible to get the big schooner safely past the Confederate battery. Pickering ordered his men to set fire to Columbia and, with the sloop in tow, began pulling hard for the channel in their boats. They exchanged shots with the fort but succeeded in getting past it without injury. Pickering had his little flotilla anchor just inside the breakers on the San Luis Pass bar to await daylight. At dawn, the surf was still roiling, so Pickering, fearing the loss of the sloop in rough water with all on board, released the sloop and his prisoners to return to the safety of the bay. Pickering and the other two boats made it safely back to USS Montgomery. In exchange for the loss of one crewman seriously injured by the accidental discharge of another sailor’s carbine, Pickering had destroyed a large schooner and her cargo of cotton that, by daylight, was seen to be “burned to the water’s edge.”
I was coming back from Quintana this afternoon and snapped this image (top) from the bridge that now spans San Luis Pass. It’s a beautiful day here, but windy, and the water is rough. About a half mile away, you can see an almost continuous, horizontal white line of surf, with green water inside and blue water outside — those are the breakers on the bar that forced Pickering to release his prize and prisoners.