The Texian Navy in 1836: The View from San Jacinto
Following is the prepared text of my address on Saturday at San Jacinto for the 2016 Texian Navy Day observance aboard U.S.S. Texas (BB-35). It’s a commemorative speech, rather than an informational one, so it’s long on rhetoric, which is a little different from the research-based presentations I’m used to giving. Nevertheless, I did try to make sure that the points made were on a solid historical footing, which is not always the case when it comes to Texas and Texans.
I’d like to thank Dead Confederates reader Boyd Harris, who serves as Lead Interpreter at San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, for helping guide me on relevant source material on the battlefield and the Texian campaign of 1836. I’d also like to thank Texas Navy Admirals Ron Brown and Bob Steakley for adhering to a tight timeline for the ceremony — the event was scheduled for an hour, but we were done in forty-two minutes flat, something that is best appreciated on a steel deck in the bright, late-summer sun. For further reading on the Texas Navy during this period, I recommend Lone Star Navy: Texas, the Fight for the Gulf of Mexico, and the Shaping of the American West by Jonathan Jordan, and The First Texas Navy by John Powers, both published in 2006.
I would like to thank you all for the opportunity to being here today on this bright fall morning, aboard this magnificent vessel, this steel castle, the most powerful warship on the world when she was new. Texas is, of course, a veteran of the First World War. Some of you will know that 2016 is also the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, where almost sixty battleships and battle cruisers, of the British Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet, clashed in the North Sea in one of the greatest naval battles in history. Texas wasn’t there, of course; the United States wouldn’t enter the war for another year. But in the final year of the war she served in those same waters with the American battle squadron attached to the British Home Fleet, escorting convoys and keeping the Kaiser’s ships swinging at their moorings, collecting barnacles. Today she is the last of her kind, the last of the first generation of dreadnoughts. All the others lie scattered on the ocean floor, or long since gone to razor blades. She is the last one, and we are so fortunate not only to have her, but to have her here.
But I want to go back farther, not a hundred years, but a hundred and eighty years, to September 1836, here at San Jacinto. It’s five months after the battle, almost to the day, and a year since the Texian armed schooner San Felipe, aided by the steamboat Laura, exchanged fire with the Mexican schooner Correo off Velasco, in the opening shots of the Texas Revolution.
Five months after the Battle of San Jacinto, not much evidence of the conflict remains at the first glance. The battlefield itself was quickly picked clean: first by the Texian soldiers, and subsequently by scavengers, both human and animal. Finally, the battlefield is host to regular visits by civilians, who even in 1836 made detours in their travels to see the famous field where the Napoleon of the West was defeated. Now all that remains to be seen are the scattered bones of his soldados, scattered by rooting hogs now beginning to bleach in the summer sun.
Every few days, a steamboat passes here moving up or down Buffalo Bayou, threading its way through the twisting bends and sandbars. A few miles to the west, the residents of Harrisburg are busy rebuilding their town, burned in haste in the retreat ahead of Santa Ana’s army. Farther west still, the Allen Brothers have begun selling lots at a townsite they’re calling “Houston,” after the general, that they claim is destined to become the “great commercial emporium of Texas.” That remains to be seen; the Allens claim that their new town lies at the head of navigation, but it’s eight miles beyond Harrisburg, and no steamboat’s ever come close to going that far upstream. At this point, the city of Houston doesn’t look like it’s going to be a very good investment.
But if the Allen Brothers’ plan for the city of Houston doesn’t pan out, they will still be remembered for their contribution to the republic of Texas. For they purchased with their own funds a vessel subsequently commissioned as the Texas navy schooner Brutus. Brutus spent much of 1836 patrolling the Texas coastline, watching for transports supporting the Mexican army and guarding Texian merchant vessels from Mexican gunboats.
Only one of the first four schooners of the Texian Navy was really suited for a warship; she was the former U.S. Revenue Cutter Ingham, purchased at New Orleans and rechristened Independence. She served as flagship of the Texian squadron, although the ships rarely operated together as a group. Indepenence was commanded by Commodore Charles Hawkins, who by his early thirties had already seen more adventure than most men twice his age. As a new midshipman he had sailed to the Mediterranean and Russia, and fought pirates in the Caribbean under the command of one of the American naval heroes of the period, David Porter. He survived a shipwreck on the Cuban coast. And when Commodore Porter resigned his commission to command the fleet of the new Mexican Republic in its ongoing conflict with its former colonial ruler, Spain, Hawkins followed. Hawkins rose to command the Mexican brig Hermón, taking numerous prizes off the Cuban coast while operating out of Key West. During his three years in Mexican service, Hawkins caused untold headaches for American diplomats, who were eager to maintain good relations with the Spanish. In 1829 he unloaded a shotgun into the U.S. Attorney at Key West, over the man’s affair with Hawkins’ wife. Now Hawkins commands the Texas Navy, a force largely composed of Americans, fighting his old employers in Mexico City.
Even by this point in September 1836, just six months after the Declaration of Independence, the fledgling Texian Navy had helped make concrete contributions to the defeat of the centralist Mexican forces and the defense of the new Republic. Off Matamoros in early April, the schooner Invincible captured the American brig Pocket, out of New Orleans, with a cargo of flour and other foodstuffs intended for the reinforcement of Santa Anna’s Texas expedition. In addition, the neutral American vessel carried military goods that had been omitted of her cargo manifest, charts of the Texas coast, and several Mexican naval officers traveling as passengers. Captain Jeremiah Brown returned to Galveston with his prize, arriving on April 7. Evidence strongly suggests that the foodstuffs captured by Invincible made their way to Sam Houston’s army during its march that culminated in the battle here, where they were used to supply both the ill-fed soldiers of the Texian Army and the hundreds of prisoners in their charge.
Perhaps the most dramatic contribution made by the Navy to the fight for independence that culminated here was accomplished by the smallest of the Navy’s four schooners, Liberty, and began hundreds of miles from here off the Yucatan coast. There, off the port at Sísal on the evening of March 5, Captain William Brown, Jeremiah’s younger brother, discovered the large trading schooner Pelicano at anchor. Pelicano stood out among the smaller, local craft, and Brown immediately set about a plan to take her. A heavy sea was running, and two of Liberty’s boats were swamped in the process of getting them launched. Brown crammed fourteen men into the one remaining boat, and – remarkably – managed to cut away the stern boat of another neutral ship in the harbor without being observed. After dividing his men again between the two boats, Brown set out again for Pelicano.
The port superintendant at Sísal was not oblivious to the danger of prowling Texian vessels, and had taken precautions against an expedition such as Brown’s. He had assigned a squad of soldiers to the brig to fend off any attack, and unbent the vessel’s headsails and taken them ashore to make Pelicano more difficult to maneuver. He even drove a spike through the main boom to immobilize the brig’s largest sail. None of this, of course, was known to Captain Brown and his men at the time.
The Texians’ two boats crept up from both sides of the schooner simultaneously. The boat approaching from starboard was spotted first, and the soldiers fired off a ragged volley without hitting anything. The Texian sailors heaved at the oars, and managed to get alongside and began scrambling up the brig’s side before the Mexican soldiers could reload their muskets. At that same moment, the other Texian boat reached the port side bulwark, and after a short, sharp fight Brown’s crew had taken the ship. By this time the garrison on short was alerted to their presence, and firing at the captured brig. Brown’s crew managed to Pelicano under way using a canvas deck awning in place of the missing job, and made carefully made their way out of the harbor.
Such a capture would do credit to any officer and ship’s crew, and exploits like Brown’s would become a staple of future novelists like Frederick Marrayat, C. S. Forester, and Patrick O’Brian. But the story of Pelicano was not done. An inspection of the brig found her to be carrying over 500 barrels of four, apples, potatoes and other stores, things that were both needed by the Texian Army, and needed to be denied to the Mexican Army. So it was, when Pelicano was grounded trying to get into Matagorda on May 18, much effort was expended to save this valuable cargo. In the process of being salvaged, one of the barrels was stove in, and found to contain a smaller keg on gunpowder hidden inside. In all, some 400 barrels of flour and 280 kegs of gunpowder were recovered and turned over to the Texian Army, prompting General Houston publicly to praise Captain Brown and the Navy in a proclamation issued from his camp on the west bank of the Brazos River on March 31, three weeks before the Battle of San Jacinto.
This may also have been the last time Sam Houston had anything nice to say about the Texian Navy.
We cannot say, 180 years on, what impact the powder and foodstuffs taken from Pocket and Pelicano had on the events that took place here on the third Thursday in April 1836. Did those 280 kegs of powder make a difference in the outcome of the fight that day? Did the sharp report of the Twin Sisters originate in a keg, hidden in a barrel of apples, in the hold of a merchant brig anchored in a sleepy port in the Yucatan? At this distance, we can probably never answer that question with certainty.
But what we do know now, and what was clear to Sam Houston 180 years ago, was that the fledging Texian Navy nonetheless played a role in the initial struggle for Texian independence, and early on established a reputation for courage, resourcefulness, and daring that would continue throughout the following decade. The Texian Navy, like the new nation itself, would face darker times in the months and years ahead, the result of poor finances, political in-fighting, and in some cases, personal animosities between prominent men of the Republic. In spite of those things, though, a Texan in September 1836 could stand here, on the edge of Buffalo Bayou, and know that the Texas Navy had performed its role. Today were remember those difficult, dangerous times, and the bold and courageous men who risked their livelihoods and lives in the service of their new country.