So I’m something like a 8th generation Texan, have a grandfather who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy, and a boyfriend who is currently in the Naval ROTC. Texas and the navy, two things I should definitely know about, right?
Picking what I thought would be a very easy topic, I chose to write about the first Texas navy for a school research paper in one of my online classes. Boy was I wrong! After many hours of forcing my way through actual military letters, Texas history books, and Texas Revolution books, I realized I know nothing about Texas history. I knew the basic idea surrounding the Alamo and why Texas wanted to separate from Mexico to become her own republic, but other than that, I was surprised.
Even if you’re not from Texas, it’s interesting to learn how and why military branches were quickly created, whether it was in battle times or in preparation for future defense.
Here’s the end result of the research for my “easy” topic:
Remember the Alamo – where men like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie fought for Texas during her War of Independence from Mexico? Many people do, but not many (only 30% of surveyed participants) know that during this same time period from 1835-1836 Texas created its own navy. After Mexico inherited Texas from Spain, it could not persuade Mexican citizens to move into the “uncivilized north” (Naval History Division). So Mexico opened Texas up to American settlers, called Texians, who agreed to swear allegiance to Mexico. Soon, tensions grew between Texians and the Mexican government. When the Texians wanted to create their own republic, “Texas and Mexico assumed a character which made it quite apparent that a separation must take place, and that a protracted war would ensue” (Jones 11). Though Texas declared its independence and set up a provisional government, it lacked the military power to maintain a separate government for very long. The creation of the first Texas navy made it possible for Texas to win its War of Independence by providing ships to quickly transport soldiers and supplies, to protect the coast, and to defend and attack in the Gulf of Mexico.
~Privateers & Creation~
Despite the growing need for a navy, it took several months for the General Council of the provisional government to agree on how a navy would best benefit Texas. In an effort to defend Texas until the navy could be officially established, Texas Governor Henry Smith issued ‘letters of marque’ authorizing the owners of privately-owned ships to lawfully capture merchant vessels. According to Governor Smith, these “privateers” “not only prevent invasion by sea . . . [but allow Texas to] … blockade . . . . Mexico and destroy her commerce” (Texas Military Forces Museum, Privateers and Warships). One privateer owner who agreed with Smith’s proposition said: “Indeed I know of no way better calculated to destroy their commerce . . . than by privateering I should like to see it carried on in style” (Jenkins 509). These privateers were only a temporary solution, however, and Governor Smith did not want to sign a bill that joined their commission and the creation of the navy into one function, saying this proposed navy would not be “stringent enough” (TexasNavy 3). Instead, Governor Smith signed a bill for a standalone navy, and on November 25, 1835, the First Texas Navy was formed. It adopted the U.S. navy regulations and Robert Potter was appointed the first Secretary of the Navy. Stephen F. Austin, who had been Commander-in-Chief of the Texas army, was commissioned along with William Harton and Branch Archer to purchase warships (Texas Navy Association).
~Four Ships & Two Years~
The first Texas Navy consisted of only four schooners-of-war: Independence, Liberty, Brutus, and Invincible. Independence was captained by Commodore Charles E. Hawkins and George Wheelwright. Commissioned January 1836, she was the flagship for the Texas navy from January to April 1837. Weighing a whopping 125 tons, she was 89 feet long and had a “40 complement,” which meant she required 40 men for proper operation. Her weaponry consisted of six 6-pounder guns (see figure below) and one 9-pounder gun. She was captured by the Mexican navy on April 17, 1837, and sunk during a storm in August 1837 (Camp Mabry, Independence).
Example of a 6-pounder naval gun and crew (circa 1896-1901). Photograph by Edward Hart.
The second schooner, Liberty, was captained by William Brown and George Wheelwright. Commissioned January 5, 1836, she weighed 75 tons and had a length of 60 feet. With a 20-50 complement, the schooner had 6 small guns (Camp Mabry, Liberty). Liberty was sold in July 1836 after the Texas provisional government could not afford her repairs (The Texas State Historical Association 749).
The third schooner, Brutus, was captained by William A Hurd, James Boyle, and L.E. Herby throughout her lifetime. Commissioned January 25, 1836 (Whisenhunt), she weighed 125 tons and was 90 feet in length. With a 40 complement, she had one 18-pounder swivel gun and 9 smaller guns. Despite withstanding running aground on August 26, 1837, Brutus continued service until it was destroyed in a hurricane on October 7, 1837 (Camp Mabry, Brutus).
The last of the four ships was Invincible. She was captained by Jeremiah Brown and Henry Thompson after being commissioned on January 18, 1836 (Whisenhunt). After the Independence was captured, she was the flagship for the navy from April to August 1837. Weighing 125 tons, with a length of 75 feet, she had the largest complement of all four schooners -70 men. Her weaponry consisted of one 18-pounder, two 9-pounder, and four 6-pounder guns. Invincible was lost in battle on August 26, 1837. Despite Sam Houston’s efforts to increase the number of naval schooners in 1836, the act was never funded by the Texas Legislature. So, once these four ships were destroyed or lost, the first Texas navy officially came to an end (Camp Mabry, Invincible).
A schooner - a sailing ship with two or more masts. Photo courtesy of Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
~How the Navy Helped: Transportation~
During its lifetime, the navy helped with the war against Mexico in three key areas. First, it transported men and supplies more easily and safely than could have been done without a navy. For example, on her first cruise in January 1836, Independence accompanied supply vessels from New Orleans to Galveston, and Brutus escorted a convoy to Galveston in May. After the Battle of San Jacinto in April 1836, Independence carried the President of Texas, David Burnet, along with General Sam Houston, General Santa Anna, and General Cos to sign treaties in Velasco to officially end the Texas Revolution. A few days later, on May 22, Liberty transported Sam Houston to New Orleans to see a doctor for his injuries from the Battle of San Jacinto. On June 6, Independence carried diplomats from Velasco to New Orleans to discuss U.S. recognition of the new Republic of Texas (Texas Navy Association).
~How the Navy Helped: Defense~
Second, the navy provided critical defense. Secretary S. Rhoads Fisher, who succeeded Robert Potter as Secretary of the Navy in 1836, wrote: “I will pledge myself that our three vessels (Independence, Invincible, and Brutus) will drive the Enemy from our coast” (Powers 131). A few days before the Texas navy was officially formed, the Texas merchant vessel Hannah Elizabeth was captured by Mexico’s war schooner Bravo. Samuel Fisher, with a letter of marque, gathered a group of men on his privateer and retook the Hannah Elizabeth. Fisher’s ship, William Robbins, was later rechristened Liberty when she became part of the Texas navy. The first big capture for the ‘official’ Texas Navy was the merchant vessel Pelicano in early March 1836. After she was discovered smuggling 300 kegs of black powder hidden in flour barrels, Pelicano was captured by Liberty, which redirected the powder to Sam Houston’s Texas Army. The navy also defended Galveston Island. On April 21, 1836, the island was nationalized as a naval depot, and the navy was ordered to ready to defend the island against any attack (The news that Texas had defeated Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto had not yet reached Galveston). (Texas Military Forces Museum)
~How the Navy Helped: Attacking~
Third, the navy assisted Texas by actively attacking Mexico and by patrolling along the Mexican coast. For example, on April 3, 1836, Invincible spotted a stranded Mexican warship, General Bravo. When a Texas navy lieutenant boarded General Bravo in an attempt to assess the danger, the Mexican captain tried to sail for reinforcements from an armed garrison upriver. But General Bravo was quickly stopped by Invincible’s crew opening fire. The ships fired on each other for about an hour, but no serious damage was done to either ship. The Invincible drew back when the crew spotted an odd sail on a different ship, and ended up capturing her. It was the U.S. brig Pocket, which the Texas navy found to be carrying information and gear to the Mexican army for General Santa Anna. Stopping these men and supplies from reaching Texas prevented a stronger attack against Texas which saved her from an early end. Another large attack against Mexico occurred in 1837 after Independence was captured by Mexico. Secretary Fisher sent Invincible and Brutus on a destructive two-month cruise with orders to “seek the enemy wherever you may think you can find him” (Powers 137). From May to June, they sailed along the Mexican coast in revenge, burning coastal cities and capturing merchant vessels. The two schooners seized Conzumel island for Texas with a 23-gun salute and, as Invincible’s captain noted, “hoisted the Star Spangled Banner at the height of forty five feet” (Texas Navy Association). When they departed, they released their hold on the island and continued to capture merchant vessels near the Island of Contoy and surrounding ports. Invincible and Brutus held the Yucatan port of Telchac before shipping off again to capture yet another Mexican schooner, Union (Texas Navy Association).
Along with leading significant attacks, the first Texas navy was formed to defend its coasts and escort men and supplies safely in the Gulf of Mexico. Though the first Texas navy was allowed to dissolve, Texas did create a second navy in 1839 – known only as the Texas Navy – which existed until Texas became part of the United States. But it was the original Texas navy that first “. . . evidenced a large and firm commitment by the Texians to their cause. . .” (Powers 9). Texas declared independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836, and officially became the Republic of Texas.
So..what’d you think? Never really taking a full history course, I was surprised and interested in every aspect of the creation – reading actual military letters from this time period was amazing!