Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Excerpt! September 1862 - "I Want to Do Something"!

We are getting close to the 150th anniversary of the "First Battle of Galveston": the arrival of the Union navy off of Galveston on October 4, 1862, a 4-day evacuation period, and the bloodless surrender of the island on October 9, 1862.

In excerpts below from my new book, Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, September 2012), I describe some of the important activity that took place in the weeks leading up to the capture.

The excerpts also provide an opportunity to describe some of the previously unpublished material that readers will find in the book!

The capture of Galveston was led by Commodore William B. Renshaw, United States Navy (USN).

Renshaw was born into a naval family; he was appointed a midshipman in 1831 and served on a variety of ships during his career. He was appointed commander in April 1861 on the outbreak of the Civil War and spent the first part of the war in Admiral David G. Farragut’s squadron, who commended Renshaw for the “handsome manner in which [he]
managed his vessel” during the operations against New Orleans in 1862.

Page 1 of Sept, 18, 1862 letter from William B. Renshaw, Pearce Museum Collection
In the book, I quote from a previously unpublished letter written by Renshaw on September 18, 1862, from the USS Westfield, a ship that would play an important part in the capture of Galveston and in the subsequent battle of Galveston.  You can read a previous post about the Westfield (including archaeology!) here.

The letter - 6 pages long - is great: he begins by apologizing to his friend for his lack of correspondence as he has been sick for several weeks; he then writes about the confusion (based on newspaper reports) of what is happening in battles between Union and Confederate forces in the eastern theater; he complains of the handling of the Gulf fleet since the capture of New Orleans and David D. Porter's reassignment; for my part, the best part of the letter gives a sense of Renshaw's restlessness and his eagerness for an opportunity to get back in action:

“I am trying to get the Admiral to allow me to take the Flotilla Steamers and go down and take Galveston. At present I think he will allow me to go. I don’t exactly know the strength of their fortifications but believe they will not prove too strong for me. I want to do something.”

Interested readers/researchers will find the source of the letter here:

William B. Renshaw, USS Westfield, letter written September 18, 1862, Renshaw Papers, Pearce Collection.  You can read more about the GREAT Pearce Museum collection in a previous blog post (here). 

As it turned out, Renshaw - promoted to commander to commodore - would get a chance to “do
something” very soon after writing his letter. Had he known the consequences, however, one wonders if he would been in such a hurry.

The very next day, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut gave the following orders to Renshaw:

September 19, 1862 orders, Farragut to Renshaw, ORN

Order of Rear-Admiral Farragut, U. S. Navy, to Commander Renshaw, U. S. Navy, commanding Mortar Flotilla, to proceed down the coast of Texas.

FLAGSHIP HARTFORD, Pensacola Bay, September 19, 1862

Commodore William B. Renshaw, USN (1816–1863)
SIR: As soon as your vessels are ready for sea you will proceed to Ship Island and coal, and if there is a vessel there, or at the mouth of the Mississippi, that has the privilege of going to another port, you will direct her to proceed to Galveston with you, to replenish your coal at that p lace. Leave the Jackson in Mississippi Sound for the prevention of vessels passing through Grants Pass and running in the sound generally. You will proceed down the coast of Texas with the other vessels, keeping a good lookout for vessels running the blockade, and when- ever you think you can enter the sounds on the coast and destroy the temporary defenses, you will do so and gain the command of the inland navigation. Galveston appears to be the port most likely for you to be able to enter, if the forts are not too formidable. I do not wish you to interfere with the officers now operating inside, unless you deem it absolutely necessary for the good of the country, in which case you will use your discretion as commanding or senior officer.

Respectfully, etc., [D. G. FARRAGUT,] Rear-Admiral, Commanding Western Gulf Blockading Squadron.

Commander W. B. RENSHAW, Commanding Mortar Flotilla

Source: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (ORN) (31 vols., Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1899–1908; ser. 1, vol. 19, 213. 

 Renshaw wasted little time in obeying his orders and, as noted at the beginning of this post, arrived off of Galveston two weeks later.

The story continues soon!

You can learn more by reading Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012).

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