1862: Fiery Trial
The reality of the war hit Texas and the rest of the South hard in 1862. Early in the year, the Confederates lost two critical western forts, Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland. In March, Confederate forces were badly beaten at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. These Union victories cemented federal control of Missouri and gave the Yankees leverage to hammer a wedge between the western Confederacy and the rest of the South.
Some commanders on both sides believed that if the armies could only meet in one huge battle, the war could be decided. The Battle of Shiloh, fought in Mississippi in April 1862, showed the folly of that notion beyond a shadow of a doubt. The bloody toll was 23,000 casualties, more than the American Revolution, War of 1812, and Mexican War combined. For Texans, the losses included Albert Sidney Johnston, the Confederate commander at the battle and a famous veteran officer of the Texas army.
Just ten days after the disaster at Shiloh, the Confederate Congress passed the first conscription law in the South. All white men between the ages of 18 and 35 were ordered to report for military service.
War on the Texas Coast
Tales of Confederate blockade runners are some of the most colorful stories of the Civil War. Historians estimate that the swift little ships penetrated the Union blockade of the Texas coast more than a thousand times during the course of the war, spiriting cotton out to Havana and returning with military goods such as iron, army blankets and clothing, and weapons, as well as consumer goods like needles and thread, coffee, and medicine.
Nevertheless, by the beginning of 1862 the Union blockade of Galveston was becoming noticeably more effective. The blockade runners could not even come close to meeting the state’s needs for imports or exports. As a result, most of the cotton trade moved south of the border. Matamoros boomed overnight into a major cotton trading port, and Galveston started to wither.
In May 1862, Captain Henry Eagle, the commander of the U.S.S. Santee, issued a demand for the surrender of Galveston. In preparation for battle, Paul Hébert, the Confederate military commander of Texas, ordered the evacuation of civilians from the city. Many citizens had nowhere to go. They crowded into shantytowns in Houston that were already bursting with those fleeing the war in Louisiana.
Hébert also ordered the evacuation of the town’s livestock, supplies, and cannon to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. He knew the city’s defenses were “useless braggadocio,” and would not hold against a sustained bombardment. But as it turned out, Eagle could not follow through on his threat. His crew was badly ill with scurvy, and he was forced to abandon the blockade and sail for Boston. Those who remained in Galveston were left with their lonely wharves and deserted streets, knowing that their city was a target but not knowing when a real attack might come.
Elsewhere on the coast, Union forces were taking action. In August, a five-ship Union flotilla bombarded Corpus Christi. Confederate defenders under Major Alfred Hobby, a local secessionist who owned a general store in Refugio County, occupied old earthworks built by Zachary Taylor during the Mexican War and managed to repel the attack.
In September, three Union vessels under Lieutenant Frederick Crocker bombarded Fort Sabine at Sabine Pass, the waterway between Texas and Louisiana. The fort had been built by local residents, including many slaves, and was garrisoned by the town’s militiamen. This time the federals were more successful. They destroyed the fort, then entered the town and burned the sawmill, railroad bridge, and depot.
A yellow fever outbreak affected both sides, and the Union troops did not attempt to occupy the town. But the next month, Crocker came ashore again, this time to burn Confederate barracks and stables. Confederates checked Crocker from further advances into Texas with the hasty construction of Fort Grigsby. The mud-and-log fort was well situated overlooking the Neches River and served its purpose until Fort Griffin and Fort Manhassett could be completed to give Sabine Pass and Beaumont a more permanent defense.
In the meantime, Galveston’s turn had come at last. On October 4, four federal warships under Commander William B. Renshaw sailed into Galveston Harbor. Meeting fire from Fort Point, which guarded the harbor’s entrance, they opened fire and quickly disabled the Confederate artillery. Later they discovered that the little fort had only had one operational gun; the rest were just painted logs. Renshaw met with a Confederate representative and told him that he would either “hoist the United States flag over the city of Galveston or over its ashes.”
Galveston was defenseless. A despondent Galvestonian confided to his diary that talk of resisting the Yankees had been “all gas.” After a four-day truce to allow the remaining civilians to be evacuated, the city was surrendered.
Page last modified: August 23, 2011