Sunday, October 7, 2012

Evacuation of Galveston! 150 Years Ago Today!

In my previous post (here) I discussed the Union demand for the surrender of Galveston on October 4, 1862.

What happened next?

Notice to Galveston citizens of four-day evacuation
period in October 1862
Confederate representatives relayed Renshaw’s demand to Colonel Joseph J. Cook, commanding troops in the city, who promptly sent back a refusal to surrender. Cook also declared that there were many women and children and demanded time to remove them to safety.

The Union naval commander - William B. Renshaw - verbally agreed to a four-day evacuation period, promising that he would not shell the island; likewise, he secured a promise from Cook that Confederate forces would not use the truce to fortify the city. Cook stuck to the letter of the agreement, if not the spirit: he had no intention of increasing the defenses and instead used the four days to move his troops, guns, all government property and some important machinery off the island (and—as one historian has pointed out—the malted beverages from the city’s icehouse!) and burning what had to be left.

For the next ninety-six hours, many citizens took advantage of free train transportation to leave the city.

Readers of this blog know I have an interest in the important role that yellow fever played in Galveston during the Civil War (here and here and more!).  In fact, the very threat of yellow fever kept Renshaw from capturing Galveston and its garrison outright on October 4, 1862!

Renshaw noted in his official report:

Here let me state that in my first interview with these gentlemen, after I had made known my terms [of surrender], they informed me that the yellow fever prevailed on shore, which information strongly influenced my desire to moderate my first demands, that I might have the option at the end of a truce to take possession of the city, or the reverse should the report of fever existing be confirmed.

But there was NO yellow fever in Galveston at that time!  The clever ruse kept Renshaw and the Union navy off of Galveston for four precious days while the Confederates evacuated civilians, their forces, and military goods off the island.  

Renshaw explained that "the great danger of contagion from yellow fever" and "the possibility of getting  that fatal disease on board of us, and possibly killing many innocent people" outweighed the fact that the Confederates were able to escape with large caliber guns.

Renshaw's biggest mistake, however, was in accepting a verbal agreement to evacuation rather than a written one, in which he could have made clear that the Confederates would not only be disbarred from increasing their defense, but they must not dismantle them either.

Next post - Galveston surrenders on October 9, 1862!

You can learn about this great story in my new book: Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012)


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