Monday, December 31, 2012


By Mike  Jones
     The Battle of Galveston, Texas, January 1, 1863, was a resounding Confederate victory after a string of stunning losses on the Louisiana and Texas gulf coasts in 1862. New Orleans was lost in April 1862 and Galveston October 4, 1862. A series of successful raids along the coast also demoralized the Confederate populace even more. But President Jefferson Davis had sent a man to Texas who would dramatically turn things around -- Major General John Bankhead Magruder.
Maj. Gen. J.B. Magruder
(Cdv, author's collection)
      Magruder was a fighter. He was also very innovative, crafty and aggressive. A native Virginian, West Point graduate, and veteran of the Seminole and Mexican Wars, Magruder arrived in Texas in November, 1862 and immediately went about developing a plan to take back Galveston. He knew he didn't have much time. A U.S. Navy  flotilla had taken the city without resistance October 4, but occupation troops had not yet arrived, so it had a very tentative hold on the city. When the Federal Army arrived in force, it would be practically impossible to dislodge them or prevent an invasion of the Texas mainland. The  target for the Federals was Houston, which was an important railroad hub for the state, much like Atlanta was for Georgia. Whoever controlled Houston, effectively controlled Texas.
      The bulk of the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi was then tied up in Louisiana dealing with the Federal build up at New Orleans. Magruder had to  cobble together the meager troops available to him to take back the important port city of Galveston. He was able to assemble some Sibley's Texas cavalry which had returned from its failed New Mexico Campaign, some of the coastal defense forces, mainly 1st Texas Heavy Artillery Regiment, Pyron's Texas Cavalry Regiment and portions of the Griffin's 21st Texas Infantry  Battalion and the 20th Texas Infantry Regiment. He also had two riverboat steamers, the Neptune and Bayou City, fitted out with a few artillery pieces and cotton bales were stacked around the decks, thus transforming them into "cottonclad" gunboats. The two vessels were manned by portions of the 5th Texas Cavalry and the 7th Texas Cavalry to serve as boarding troops, thus transforming the cavalrymen into "horse marines. He also had 14 light artillery pieces and 6 pieces of heavy artillery for his innovative land-sea attack. Altogether there were about 1,500 Confederates for the operation. The Confederate cottonclads were under the command of Major Leon Smith of the Texas Marine Department and the Confederate land forces under Brig. Gen. William Scurry. Magruder was the overall commander.
Cottonclads Neptune and Bayou City on their way to Galveston to attack the
Federal fleet. ( From Six Decades in Texas)
       Magruder's plan was to launch a surprise attack early in the morning of New Year's Day, 1863. The land troops would get in place in the Galveston city, then  the cottonclads would attack the Federal fleet in the harbor when they heard the land attack beginning. About 500 Confederates would storm the Federals lodged on Kuhn's Wharf.
       The Federal fleet had been reinforced on Christmas Day by several companies, about 260 men, of the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry under Colonel Isaac Burrell. They set up a defensive position on Kuhn's Wharf, under the protection of the navy  gunboats. Burrell could send out patrols in the daytime, but had to withdraw into his defenses on the wharf at night. The gunboat fleet in the harbor at that time consisted of the U.S.S. Harriet Lane, U.S.S. CliftonU.S.S. Westfield, U.S.S.Oawasco, and U.S.S. Corysephus. Commodore W.B. Renshaw on his flagship, the Westfield, was in overall command. Although outnumbered in manpower, the Federals had a decided advantage in firepower with the heavy guns on the gunboats.
      Magruder's plan went awry from the beginning. The cottonclads arrived too early after midnight and were spotted by the gunboats. Smith had the Confederate ships withdraw and wait on the land forces to get into place. It took Magruder longer than expected to get across the two mile long railroad bridge and into place in the city. It was about  4 p.m. when all the units were in their assigned places. Magruder then fired the first shot of the battle from a field place at the end of 20th Street near the Hendley building, which still stands in Galveston today. By that time both the Federal troops on the wharf and the gunboats in the harbor were ready and waiting. The cottonclads had withdrawn too far away to immediately attack the Federal ships, the small Confederate guns and six heavy pieces had to duel it out  with the heavily armed gunboats. Confederate infantry and cavalry kept the Massachusetts infantry pinned down on the wharf during the artillery duel.
      The Confederate artillery was clearly getting the worst of the duel and about 5 a.m. the storming party, led by Colonel Joseph Cook of the 1st Texas Heavy  Artillery, led the assault. The  Yankee infantry had pulled up planks of the wharf in two places so they attackers couldn't sweep across it. The Massachusetts men had suffered no casualties during the artillery duel. So, the 42nd Massachusetts was ready to open up with a deadly fire on the storming party. The Confederates splashed into the water with scaling ladders, while some men went onto the wharf and fired from the first break in the walkway. The scaling ladders proved to be too short, and the firepower of the enemy infantry and heavy firepower of the fleet was too much for the Confederate infantry. The assault was a failure and the attackers retreated. With daylight approaching, Magruder had the entire Confederate land force take shelter behind the buildings of the city, such as the Custom's House, still there today.
The U.S.S. Harriet Lane, center, being attacked by the C.S.S. Bayou City
and C.S.S. Neptune at the Battle of Galveston.
(U.S. Naval Historical Institute)
      Just when it seemed the Union was winning, the Confederate cottonclads arrived and the Neptune and Bayou City immediately went for the Harriet Lane, the closest and most powerful of the gunboats. The Bayou City attacked first, trying to ram and board the Union vessel, but just grazed it and damaged its wheelhouse. It had to turn around for another try. Captain Wier, commanding the heavy artillery piece on the Bayou City, was killed when the gun exploded. The Neptune succeeded in ramming the Harriet Lane, but it also suffered the most damage and received a blast from the gunboat's heavy guns and was beginning to sink. The Neptune pulled away and partially sank near the shore in 8 feet of water. The sharpshooters on board were able to keep up their fire from the steamers upper deck. The Bayou City came around and also turned the battle around by successfully ramming the Harriet Lane. Smith led the boarding party onto the Federal ship and successfully took it over. The Harriet Lane's commander, Captain Jonathan Wainwright was killed, as was his executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Edward Lea. The rest of the crew surrendered. The two were buried with military and masonic honors in Galveston's Episcopal Cemetery. Lea's father, Lt. Col. A. M. Lea, on Magruder's staff, was at his son's side when he died.
      Meanwhile, the Westfield had grounded and never got into the fight. Renshaw thought he was being attacked by ironclads and so ordered the fleet out to sea. Captain Lubbock of the Bayou City bluffed the Federals into a three hour cease fire and demanded surrender. Before the Confederates could get to Renshaw, the fleet commander tried to blow his ship up to prevent its capture, but was himself blown up with it when the demolition charge went off to soon. The rest of the fleet skulked out under the truce flag. The Confederates had won and recaptured Galveston. With the fleet gone, the 42nd Massachusetts surrendered.
     The Southerners lost 26 men killed and 117 wounded. The Federals lost about 370 men captured, including 150 battle casualties, killed and wounded.  The Harriet Lane was  captured intact, the Westfield was destroyed and some auxiliary ships captured. It was a great victory for Magruder and the Confederates. The triumph was the first and only time the Confederacy would recover one of its captured ports and hold it until the end of the war.

No comments: