Singing Freedom’s Song – Texas, the Irish and the War for Southern Independence – Part III – The battles for Galveston


"Shelling of the batteries at Galveston by the United States war steamer South Carolina, on Monday afternoon, August 5th, 1861." —Leslie, 1896

Very few pictures better convey so many aspects of the War for Southern Independence than this one made 45 years after the event. One of the common names for the war was the War of Northern Aggression and certainly a man-of-war shelling the defenseless civilian population as part of a systemic starvation blockade qualifies by any definition of the term that we know. That the vessel was named for the State that led the South out of the union is a bitter irony for the victims of this unprovoked assault. There are at least two specific engagements that qualify as battles in Galveston during the war and there is the ongoing battle against the starvation blockade that ranged from Sabine Pass to the Brazos de Santiago at the Mexican Border. There is also the involvement with Mexico during and after the war that are crucial to understanding the conflict and its impact on Galveston and Texas.

Governor Francis R. Lubbock

Paul Octave Hébert, a West Point graduate and former Louisiana governor, assumed command on September 16, 1861, and established his headquarters at Galveston. Appalled by the state’s lack of an adequate coastal defense system, he wrote to Secretary of War Leroy Pope Walker, “I regret to say that I find this coast in almost a defenseless state, and in the almost total want of proper works and armaments; the task of defending successfully any point against an attack of any magnitude amounts to a military impossibility.”

The general called on every Texan to “clean his old musket, shot-gun, or rifle, run his bullets, fill his powder-horn, sharpen his knife, and see that his revolver is ready to his hand.” If the men responded to his call, he assured them the enemy would “never hold a foot of your soil-never!” Despite – or maybe because of –  such rhetoric, Hébert proved unpopular with Texas troops, who considered him all gas and gaiters. Nor did he win the approval of Governor Francis R. Lubbock, who called him “somewhat bewildered by the magnitude of the task assigned him, and not to have matured…any definite line of policy.”

E. B. Nichols and Company building

Not all Galvestonians were as unprepared for the fight as Hébert. E. B. Nichols had come to Galveston in 1850 and had amassed a fortune in cotton, shipping and banking. Although initially opposed to secession he answered the call when in late January and early February 1861 a convention of the people of Texas met in Austin and voted to secede from the Union and he and served as a delegate to the Secession Convention. Thereafter he was there made state commissioner to raise and disburse funds for the public safety, negotiate the surrender of Fort Brown and other forts, and handle ammunition and stores at Brownsville and Point Isabel. Nichols was a captain in the Galveston Rifles, which was a regiment that he helped raise, outfit and which drilled on the third floor of his building on the Strand which still stands today.

U S Customs House - Union HQ during the occupation

The U.S. Navy began a blockade of Galveston Harbor in July 1861, but the town remained in Confederate hands for the next 14 months under the command of Hébert who, while commanding the Confederate District of Texas, had removed most of the heavy artillery from Galveston Island, which he believed to be indefensible.  On 4th of October 1862, Cdr. W.B. Renshaw, commanding the blockading ships in the Galveston Bay area, sent a vessel into the harbor with the intention to inform the military authorities in Galveston that if the town did not surrender, the U.S. Navy ships would attack in one-hour.

Four Union steamers, with a mortar boat in tow, entered the harbor and the only response was from Fort Point garrison that fired on the federal ships, which responded by dismounting the Confederate cannon with return shots. Col. Joseph J. Cook, CSA,   dispatched a boat and two Confederate officers boarded U.S.S. Westfield. Renshaw demanded an unconditional surrender of Galveston or he would begin shelling.  Cook refused Renshaw’s terms, and conveyed to Renshaw that he would be  held responsible for destroying the town and killing women, children, and the foreign citizens that resided there – many as accredited counselors to the Confederacy. Texans have a long and proud history of answering ultimatums with a cannon and that is what Cook proposed to do here.

Despite the fact that Renshaw threatened to resume the shelling and made preparations for towing the mortar boat into position the Confederate officers arranged a four-day truce and the Confederates retreated, taking all of their weapons, ammunition, supplies, and whatever they could carry with them to the mainland where they held Virginia Point to prevent northern incursions on the mainland and preventing union control of the rail line to Houston and beyond. The union ships held the harbor, but the occupation force of battalion strength from the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry, led by Col. I. S. Burrell, did not arrive until December 25 to occupy the town. While in Galveston the union troops used Kuhn’s Wharf and were garrisoned  at Hendley Market which occupies most of the north side of the block opposite the E. B. Nichols and Company Building on the Strand.

Union Troops Barracks in Galveston

This was the end of Hébert’s service[sic] to Texas and he was replaced by Gen. John B. Magruder. Thereafter Hébert commanded the subdistrict of North Louisiana, where, in the words of Lt. Col. James Arthur Lyon Fremantle of Her Majesty’s Coldstream Guard, he was “shelved at Monroe, where he expects to be taken prisoner any day.” His only combat experience came in the Vicksburg campaign at the battle of Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana, on June 7, 1863 where the Confederate troops participated in the longest bayonet-charge engagement of the war but were ultimately defeated by slaves impressed as troops in the union army and the shelling of federal gunboats. After the war Hébert once again became Louisiana state engineer and supervised construction of the Mississippi River levees but we shall hear no further from him.

Major General John Bankhead Magruder - "Prince John"

If Hébert had suffered from an engineer’s myopia leading to fits of timidity his successor, one of the nineteenth century’s most charismatic military figures, had no such problems. Major General John Bankhead Magruder was born in Virginia in 1807,  attended the University of Virginia, where he dined with Thomas Jefferson and his classmates included a young writer named Edgar Allan Poe.  While at West Point, Magruder met the future Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph E. Johnston. Graduating from West Point in 1830, Magruder embarked upon three  decades of service in the U.S. Army, taking him from Florida during the Seminole wars to the frontiers of Maine, New York, and Texas. In 1847, his leadership of General Winfield Scott’s forces was instrumental in defeating Santa Anna at the gates of Mexico City.

By the spring of 1861, Prince John Magruder had risen to be commander of the Washington garrison. Although he knew – and possibly because of what he knew about – Abraham Lincoln and several cabinet members personally, when secession and war became imminent, Magruder resigned his duties as the president’s bodyguard to return home to Virginia to answer the Confederate call to arms. In the opening engagements of the Civil War, Prince John’s initiative and audacity earned him both admiration and acclaim but  Magruder’s larger-than-life style was in sharp contrast to the rigid standards demanded by the Confederate leadership, and Magruder was transferred to the district of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Once out from under the eyes of his stern taskmasters in Virginia, the eccentric – yet unquestionably courageous – officer rallied his command and his first major engagement was recapturing the island in what may be called the second battle of Galveston.

When Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder replaced Hébert in the fall of 1862, the new district commander gave the recapture of Galveston top priority. For a naval attack he placed artillery and dismounted cavalry from Sibley’s brigade, led by Col. Thomas Green, aboard two river steamers, the Bayou City and the Neptune, commanded by Capt. Leon Smith.

The USS Westfield scuttled

Looking first at the naval side of the operation the Neptune was a steam tug that was sunk almost immediately by the USS Harriet Lane. The CS Bayou City was a 165-foot side-wheel steamboat built for commercial use at Jeffersonville, Indiana, in 1859 that had been serving as a mail boat between Houston and Galveston until she was chartered on the 26th September 1861 by Comdr. W. Hunter, CSN, commanding the Texas Marine Department, from the Houston Navigation Co. and thereafter  she was taken over by the Confederate States Army in October 1862. She was converted into what was called a “Cotton-Clad” which meant that bales of cotton lined her wooden hull to protect against enemy fire which was a mixed blessing since it did a good job against small arms fire but was susceptible to catching fire from cannon-shot.

The CS Bayou City captures the USS Harriet Lane

Captain Leon Smith had first gone to sea at age 13 and by 20 was a captain commanding ships on the Galveston to New Orleans run of Southern Mail Steamships. In February 1861, when Texas had seceded, he commanded the ship taking Col. John S. “Rip” Ford to Brownsville to take military possession of the Rio Grande and in December 1862 with only two days’ notice, prepared water-born part of offensive for the Battle of Galveston. After the Neptune was sunk the Bayou City circled around and made a second run on the USS Harriet Lane and in short order, despite the explosion of their own heavy cannon, the crew of the Bayou City succeeded in storming and overpowering the crew of the federal flagship. They also took two barks and a schooner and Cdr. W. B.  Renshaw’s  U.S.S. Westfield ignominiously ran aground when trying to help Harriet Lane and, at 10:00 am, she was blown up to prevent her capture – an act that cost the commander his life. The rest of the union fleet turned tail and put to sea out of harm’s way.

Ashton Villa - Magruder's HQ in Galveston

Magruder gathered infantry and cavalry, led by Brig. Gen. William R. Scurry, and supported by twenty light and heavy cannons, to cross the railroad bridge onto the island to capture the federal forces ashore. It was in the Mexican War that Magruder introduced a young lieutenant named Thomas Jefferson Jackson to the strategic value of deploying rapidly maneuverable artillery. Fourteen years later, at Bull Run, Jackson would earn a colorful nickname of his own – “Stonewall” – when one of his lieutenants pointed him out at a forward battery saying, “Men, there he stands, like an old stone wall”. It did not matter who used the tactic – it worked.

CSA position on the Strand January 1, 1863

Using Virginia Point the troops crossed the railroad bridge onto Galveston Island. Although when you cross the bridge today you are immediately in the city, at about 71st street, in 1863 the city did not extend further west than 25th street so the troops had about four miles to cross through scrub and swamps across bayous to get to the union encampment – that their crossing and progress was not reported speaks volumes on the support that the occupiers must have enjoyed locally. Just as the Texians had caught Santa Anna with his pants around his ankles in 1836 so to the Southern fleet showed up at three o’clock in the morning on New Year’s Day 1863 and while they engaged the union fleet Southern  ground forces rallied to a building across the street from the union barracks and engaged the three companies of the 42nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment under the command of Col. Isaac S. Burrell and captured or killed all of them except for the regiment’s adjutant.

Magruder had retaken Galveston with a loss of twenty-six killed and 117 wounded. Union losses included the captured infantry and the Harriet Lane, about 150 casualties on the naval ships, as well as the destruction of the Westfield – all told in excess of 500 casualties afloat and ashore. The port remained under Confederate control for the rest of the war,  E.  B. Nichols served on Magruder’s staff and as a financial agent for the Confederacy and where Hébert had found Galveston indefensible Magruder, Nichols and others set about making sure it provided a safe base of operations especially since New Orleans had fallen to northern invaders. One of the great advantages of Galveston is its position immediately on the coast. New Orleans has the longest pilotage from the Gulf to the port, Houston had no deep water facilities at the time and even Mobile required several hours from bar to wharf. There were a number of smaller ports that functioned but Galveston was THE port and was so well defended that it was the last place in the Confederacy to surrender.

Magruder's Defense of Galveston 1863 - 1865

After the war ended Magruder headed for Mexico and  serving in the government of Emperor Maximilian he once more added his own unique flourish to a historic upheaval. With enemy forces closing in, he attempted to arrange an escape plot for the doomed ruler. When the plan failed, Magruder fled to Cuba. Prince John eventually returned to Galveston, where he died in 1871 and is buried in the old Episcopal cemetery under a monument designed by Louis Amateis and executed by Charles Sebastian Ott.  Ott Monument Works who also did the Confederate memorial marker that is located less than a hundred yards away has done almost every stone carving job on note in Galveston for over 150 years including the Young family marker at Calvary.

Details of tomb and monument to John Bank Magruder, CSA

In 1866 Nichols organized the Bank of Galveston  with himself as president and cannily kept cash reserves almost equal to its deposits. Nichols also dealt in Galveston real estate, was president of the Galveston City Company, and took part in forming the Galveston Gas Company, the Galveston Wharf Company, the Texas Ice and Cold Storage Company, and the Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad and finally died at his home in Galveston on the 30th of November  1872 – his permanent address is also the old Episcopal cemetery.

State of Texas Monument commemorating the 1863 battle located on the grounds of the Union HQ

Leon Smith and his ships helped prevent Federal landings to take food, water and wood from Texas coasts and also ran Federal blockade and aided other ships in slipping past enemy patrols with Texas cotton to exchange overseas for goods scarce in the South like guns, ammunition, shoes, coffee, cloth, medicines. He died in Alaska on the 26th of December 1869.  His flagship at the Battle of Galveston, the CS Bayou City,  served the Confederacy in Texas waters until the conclusion of the American Civil War then  was sold on Tuesday, the 12th July 1866, at 10 o’clock a.m. at the corner of Strand and Tremont streets, in the city of Galveston, ” The engines, machinery  are said to be good and can be recovered at little cost. Terms, Cash in U.S. Treasury Notes.”

Monument to the union dead at Galveston across the row from the monument to the Confederate dead

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