Union Reversal at Galveston

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Closing the Southern Ports

Galveston, the island city along the Texas coast, had been under blockade since July 1861. Admiral David Farragut was at loose ends after the capture of New Orleans and the failure to take Vicksburg by the Navy. The Army had not sent enough troops to assist him in the latter task so he looked around for another target and Farragut decided to capture Galveston. The city had become a center of manufacturing and service businesses specializing in the shipping trade. Before the outbreak of the war two-thirds of all cotton exported from Texas had come through its port.

With the capture of New Orleans, Galveston was one of only two ports on the Gulf Coast that was open to blockade runners. Mobile Bay was the other one and Farragut did not have enough troops to capture it.

Galveston Bay in 1862Farragut ordered Commander William Renshaw to move his squadron to Galveston Harbor on October 4, 1862 and demanded the surrender of the city. The Confederate commander, Colonel Joseph Cook, agreed but only on the condition of a four-day truce. Inexplicably, Renshaw agreed to this condition and Cook was able to evacuate personnel and military supplies to Fort Hebert on the mainland.

The citizens who remained in the city were either Union sympathizers or were willing to act as if they were. The Union occupation of Galveston was only during the daytime at first with Union marines returning to their ships at night.

Renshaw’s squadron included seven warships and three companies of army troops from the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry, led by Colonel Isaac Burrell. The army troops arrived at Galveston on December 24th. Farragut had asked for more troops but the lack of cooperation by the Army and especially Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was to prove the undoing of the Galveston enterprise.

The Massachusetts infantry secured the area around the wharfs and waterfront warehouses at the end of Kuhn’s Wharf as best they could. Burrell ordered his men to reinforce a large three-story warehouse as a strong point. He also had them pull up all of the planks on the wharf but one to impede any Confederate attack.

Despite all of his caution, Burrell left the bridge from the mainland to Galveston unguarded. Army transports with field artillery arrived in the harbor but the guns were not landed. Generally, the important port of Galveston was lightly defended.

In late November 1862, Maj. Gen. John Magruder assumed command of all Confederate forces in Texas. Magruder had seen action with Johnston General John B. Magruderand later, lee during the Peninsula campaign earlier in the year. He made the retaking of Galveston one of his primary goals.

Magruder envisioned a joint Army-Navy operation to retake Galveston. There was one problem with his plan; he had no naval forces to carry out that part of his plan. All that he had available were several companies of artillery and a handful of militia. Some of his subordinates questioned the feasibility of Magruder’s plans.

Magruder did have Leon Smith, an experienced steamboat captain, who was able to assemble a small flotilla of “cottonclads” to assist in the operation. The “cottonclads”, Bayou City and Neptune, used two or three layers of cotton bales to protect their vulnerable points on the ships. Each of the vessels was equipped with artillery from the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery. The Bayou City was equipped with a 32-pounder rifled gun and the Neptune with two 24-pounder howitzers.

Magruder was able to cajole a local commander for the use of 300 men. He equipped them with Enfield rifles and double-barreled shotguns. They were assigned to the “cottonclads” as sharpshooters and boarders. Smith added two armed tenders to his flotilla.

Magruder ordered his forces to attack in the pre-dawn hours of January 1, 1863. Magruder positioned 20 pieces of artillery along the waterfront to bombard the Union ships in the harbor. After firing the first gun at the USS Owasco, Magruder retired to his headquarters about ten miles from the waterfront.

The Confederate infantry waded on either side of Kuhn’s Wharf with ladders to climb up the wharf and arrive in the enemy rear. The ladders turned out to be too short and the Confederates were forced to wade back to shore while under heavy fire. Once it lightened, the Union warships began to target the Confederate artillery positions with deadly accurate fire. Things looked bad for Magruder’s forces and considered ordering a general retreat.

Battle of Galveston BayAt this point in the battle Smith and his small flotilla arrived on the scene. Expecting a midnight attack and when it didn’t happen Smith had grown tired of waiting for the attack. He had moved his vessels up the bay. When he heard the first guns firing, he mad a dash back into position. The 32-pounder on the Bayou City exploded after four shots but Smith was undeterred. He orded his ships to close with the Union vessels.

An unsuccessful attack on the USRC Harriet Lane caused the Neptune so much damage that she began to sink. The captain managed to settle her on a sandbar where the sharpshooters were able to continue the fight. The Bayou City attacked the Harriet Lane for a second time. They managed to board and capture the ship, killing both the captain and the first officer. Ironically, the first officer, Lt. Comdr. Edward Lea’s father was serving as a volunteer on Magruder’s staff. He was able to be with his son before he died.

The Confederates arranged a truce and called for Commander William Renshaw to surrender. He refused and ordered Commander Richard Law, captain of the USS Clifton, to withdraw from the bay with the rest of the squadron. Renshaw’s vessel, the USS Westfield, had run aground in the Bolivar Channel. Renshaw resolved to scuttle her and leave on longboats. Before they could depart, the fires reached the magazine and exploded killing all on board. The other vessels escaped from the bay.

The Confederate attack was a shocking victory. The Union side lost two ships and sustained 414 casualties while the Confederates lost the Neptune, along with 26 dead and 117 wounded.

But this wasn’t the end of activity around Galveston. Farragut dispatched the USS Brooklyn and six gunboats to retake the city. On January 11th, they encountered the Confederate raider CSS Alabama. Captain Henry Bell, the squadron commander, dispatched the lightly-armed USS Hatteras to investigate the ship sighting. Totally overmatched, the Alabama sank the Union side-wheeler in 13 minutes.

The sinking of the Hatteras forced Captain Bell to break off his attack on the city and within the month Farragut abandoned any plans to retake Galveston. It was to remain in Confederate hands until June 2, 1865.

The Galveston reversal pointed out that there needed to be stronger cooperation between the Army and the Navy when attempting to secure the Southern ports.


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