1863: The Tide Turns
Rebel attack on Union gunboats in Galveston Bay. From Harper's Weekly.
After falling to the federals in October 1862, Galveston was all but a ghost town. The gas company was closed, so the few remaining civilians made do with candles and oil lamps. Food was in short supply. The waterfront was occupied by some 260 Massachusetts infantrymen, who arrived in the city on Christmas Day. Otherwise, the town was held by six Union ships that patrolled the harbor.
But the new military commander of Texas, John B. Magruder, had an audacious plan ready to retake the city for the Confederacy. In the early morning hours of January 1, 1863, Magruder and General William B. Scurry staged a New Year’s invasion, leading several thousand troops across the abandoned railroad bridge from the mainland and surprising the Union garrison at the Galveston waterfront.
Magruder’s troops faced heavy fire from the Union barracks and especially from federal gunboats in the harbor. But the naval aspects of the raid had not been neglected. Two Confederate “cottonclads”, Bayou City and Neptune, steamed into the harbor to attack federal ships. Both the Confederate gunboats were quickly crippled by superior federal firepower, and the Neptune ran aground. However, Bayou City’s captain Henry Lubbock (brother of the governor) rammed his crippled ship into the federal gunboat Harriet Lane and boarded her, killing most of the Union officers and capturing the ship.
The Lane’s capture was the pivotal moment of the battle. Lubbock demanded the surrender of the rest of the Union fleet. Commander William Renshaw angrily refused. His flagship, the Westfield, had run aground when maneuvering after the Confederate ships. He made preparations to scuttle it to avoid its capture by the enemy. Unfortunately, the explosives detonated prematurely, killing Renshaw and many others on board. After Renshaw’s death, the remaining Union ships sailed away, leaving the Massachusetts troops and the survivors of the Harriet Lane to their fates.
Rebel attack on the 43rd Massachusetts volunteers at Galveston. From Harper's Weekly.
The Battle of Galveston exhilarated Texas. Governor Lubbock, bursting with national and family pride, called it “the most dashing affair of the war.” The Texas legislature passed a special resolution commending the Confederate forces. General Magruder was hailed as a hero and feted in Houston with a parade and a grand ball in his honor.
From the Union perspective, the loss of Galveston was one of the great debacles of the war. Admiral David Farragut called the battle the “most shameful” incident in the history of the U.S. Navy. The loss touched off a chain of events, most notably the disastrous Red River campaign in 1864. Civil War historians speculate that this ill-fated campaign prolonged the war and cost both sides untold lives and treasure.
The recapture of Galveston by the Confederates brought little relief to the residents of the area. Over the next several months, Magruder fortified the city with an elaborate defense of new earthworks, wooden blockhouses, guns, and a new fort at Sabine Pass, Fort Griffin. In Magruder’s drive to complete the construction, at least 62 African-American laborers died from overwork. These men had been impressed into service from their owners, who were shocked to learn how the slaves had been treated and bitter that they were not compensated for their deaths.
The deaths of the slaves were only the beginning of growing dissatisfaction with Magruder’s regime. The civilians of Galveston soon learned that they were to be treated not as loyal Confederates come back to the fold, but residents of an occupied camp. After the fortifications were completed, Magruder withdrew most troops for use elsewhere, leaving only a small and undisciplined force that became known for drunkenness and petty theft. In part the bad behavior could be explained by the terrible conditions for the troops on Galveston. In August 1863, the troops actually mutinied against the spoiled and weevil-infested cornmeal they were issued. For the rest of the war, mutinous incidents and desertions became increasingly common on Galveston Island.
The Texas Coast Invaded
Almost from the beginning of the war, the New England textile manufacturers had been pressuring President Lincoln to invade the Texas Gulf Coast to restore the flow of cotton to the North. Lincoln resisted all such calls until after the Union victories at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Port Hudson, Louisiana, in July 1863.
These two fortresses had served as the last critical link in the Confederate supply system between the eastern states and the Trans-Mississippi. A huge percentage of the goods from Texas—clothing, shoes, beef, salt, corn—and imports from the Mexican cotton trade such as arms and medicine had reached the eastern Confederacy via these two supply centers. Now, they were under federal control.
With the Trans-Mississippi cut off from the rest of the Confederacy, taking the Texas cotton fields seemed a feasible next step. But Lincoln wanted to do more than please the New England textile interests. Putting an end to the Texas trade in manufactured goods and imports would help shorten the war. Moreover, the French had intervened in Mexico and were well on the way to taking over the country. Lincoln worried about the Confederacy forming an alliance with a French puppet government and drawing the U.S. into fighting south of the border.
In September, the federals mounted a massive attack on Sabine Pass, with four gunboats and 22 transports carrying an invasion force of 5,000 soldiers. The plan was to seize the pass and then move overland to fall upon Houston and Galveston. As with the previous year’s attack, Lieutenant Frederick Crocker commanded the naval operation. To land the troops, he first had to get past newly constructed Fort Griffin, which was manned by the Davis Guards, a Houston volunteer unit consisting of 42 tough Irish dockworkers under the command of saloonkeeper Richard “Dick” Dowling.
The attack on Sabine Pass. From Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War.
Right away Crocker ran into trouble. Dowling’s men kept up a withering fire. In the space of less than one hour, they blew up one federal gunboat, forced another to run aground, and captured or killed 350 enemy soldiers without taking a single casualty themselves. The Union forces were forced to turn back for New Orleans. Once again, Texas had thwarted an invasion and produced a victory that electrified the entire Confederacy. It was later shown that the Confederate artillery had fired their cannon 107 times in 35 minutes, far more rapid than the standard for heavy artillery. The defenders of Fort Griffin were decorated with specially struck silver medals.
Two months later, the Union tried again, this time with more success. A force of 7,000 Union troops landed at Brazos Santiago near the mouth of the Rio Grande and stormed inland to seize Brownsville. The evacuating Confederates set fire to the town as they fled, setting off days of looting and violence. Union troops deployed beyond Brownsville to occupy Mustang Island, St. Joseph Island, and Matagorda Island. By the end of the year, Indianola and Port Lavaca were in Union hands, and federal troops had moved a hundred miles up the Rio Grande to Ringgold Barracks near Rio Grande City.
The Confederate evacuation of Brownsville. From Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War.
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