The Tabasco Incident
In 1838, a squadron of United States warships, including the sloop-of-war Boston, had put in to Galveston. Aboard the Boston was first lieutenant Edwin Ward Moore, a stocky, congenial 28-year-old, fluent in both English and Spanish, who already had a dozen years of naval experience to his name. Moore's brother already lived in Texas, and Moore found himself captivated by the Texans' efforts to start a new navy from scratch. The U.S. Navy of the day was small and technologically out-of-date, and promotion was dismally slow. Moore decided to take a risk and offer his services to the Republic of Texas. In 1839, he resigned from the U.S. Navy to accept an appointment as commodore of the new Texas fleet. For the most part, the other 90 officers of the Texas Navy were also recruited from the United States Navy.
The Schooner San Antonio
Prints and Photographs Collection,
Texas State Library and Archives Commission. #1/174-27.
The first job for Moore and his officers was to obtain sailors and marines to man the new ships. Moore traveled to New York, where he recruited at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, promising adventure and prize money for all who joined the Texan cause. With some drill, these men would be ready to fight Mexico and take command of the Gulf.
Back in Texas in the spring of 1840, Moore found that the Navy had been caught up in a political battle between President Mirabeau B. Lamar and his arch-enemy, former president Sam Houston, now serving in the Texas Congress. The Houston faction had already instituted severe cutbacks in the Texas army in an effort to curtail Lamar's ambitions and had set its sights on the Navy. But Moore knew that Texas had already spent almost a million dollars on the Navy, a fortune at the time. And from the reception he'd received in Galveston, Moore could see that the Navy and its proposed mission to Mexico were popular among the Texans. A novice to partisan politics, he thought little of Houston's opposition to his plans.
In June 1840, under the command of Commodore Moore on the flagship Austin, the Zavala and the three schooners of the fleet sailed for Mexico to support secret peace negotiations taking place between Texas and Mexico. Moore was restless, and eager to deal Mexico a blow that would force the Mexicans to recognize Texas independence and renounce their claims once and for all. Moore had little faith in the peace negotiations and began to blockade the Mexican coastline off Tampico and stop all incoming and outgoing ships.
By fall, Moore had a choice between action or simply going home. The peace negotiations had failed as he had predicted. But the Navy was now desperately low on food and fuel, and the schooner San Jacinto had run aground and was in immediate need of salvage. Moore needed cash, and he chose action. The Austin, Zavala, and San Bernard penetrated ninety miles up the Tabasco River to the provincial capital of San Juan Bautista. There, Moore made common cause with Yucatán rebels who were fighting the Mexican government. Moore agreed to help the rebels capture the town in exchange for a payment of $25,000. The town surrendered without a shot, but Moore had to seize two Yucatecan vessels and hold them for ransom before getting his money. The Texans threw a dance for the city, then departed for home in January 1841.