Monday, December 31, 2012

150 Years Ago Today - Galveston - The Eve of Battle

“The long looked for fight will come off tomorrow morning. We are very busy in making preparations...I will write you again as soon as I return from the island—if I live. If I should be one of the unlucky ones that should fall on the battlefield—which probably will be the case—you will treasure this last epistle from the idol of your heart.” - Letter, James Black, First Texas Heavy Artillery, to wife, Patience Black, December 31, 1862

The most significant event in the Civil War history of Galveston, Texas, was the Battle of Galveston on January 1, 1863.

In today's blog post, I happily offer an extended excerpt from my recent book, Galveston and the Civil War: An Island in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012), which describes the events leading up to the battle, from the time of the surrender of the island to Union forces in October 1862 (you can read about that in a previous post here).

In tomorrow's blog post, I'll describe the Battle of Galveston itself.  Enjoy.

The Infantry Arrives

On December 15, 1862, Admiral David Farragut wrote Commodore William B. Renshaw that Major General Nathaniel P. Banks (who had just arrived in New Orleans with a large
complement of troops) would send “1,000 or 2,000 men immediately to occupy Galveston.” Banks did send troops, but only three companies of the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry. The regiment had spent the summer in drilling, instruction and—mostly—recruiting to fill the regiment’s ranks to full strength; it wasn’t officially organized until November. In early December, the regiment left New York on four transports bound for New Orleans, but due to storms, inexperienced or incompetent pilots and unreliable vessels, the four vessels arrived separately between December 17, 1862, and January 11, 1863.

Colonel Isaac Burrell, commander
of the Forty-second Massachusetts
Volunteer Infantry. Military Order of
the Loyal Legion of the United States—
Massachusetts Commandery (MOLLUSMASS)
Photograph Collection, United
States Army Military History Institute
The first of the four transports to arrive at New Orleans, the Saxon, held Companies D, G and I and—fortunately—the regiment’s commander, Colonel Isaac Burrell. Banks ordered the companies to Galveston “forthwith” but with little else in the way of instruction. With three days to spare before departing New Orleans for Galveston, Burrell reported to headquarters but found only Banks’s chief quartermaster, Colonel S.B. Holabird, and no written orders. Holabird counseled Burrell “not to be in a hurry proceeding to Galveston,” promised additional troops and guns and cautioned against being “drawn into any scrapes” with Confederate forces in and near the island. (1)

The total force of 15 officers, 249 enlisted men and a few civilians (including 2 African-American body servants) arrived off Galveston on December 24, 1862. Colonel Burrell met Commander Renshaw aboard the USS Clifton, where they discussed the present situation and the disposition of Burrell’s infantry. Renshaw’s original plan, which suited Colonel Burrell, was
to garrison troops in the abandoned Confederate barracks on Pelican Spit. Renshaw had changed his mind, however, and wished the three companies to land in the city and take possession of a storehouse on Kuhn’s Wharf. He assured Burrell that the Massachusetts troops would be under the protection of the flotilla’s guns and, in the event of an attack, they could be removed from the wharf and transferred to the gunboats in five minute’s time.

The three companies of the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry landed on Galveston on Christmas Day 1862. “[We] took up our quarters in a large warehouse on the out end of the warf,” Alexander Hobbs, a private in Company I, wrote in his diary, adding, “We hoisted the glorious stars & stripes over our quarters and gave them cheers a little louder than ever before.” The soldiers occupied the upper floor of the two-story warehouse as sleeping quarters and used the lower floor for ammunition, stores and a hospital. Colonel Burrell posted sentries in the city during the day, reinforced them as picket posts at night and made patrols in force day and night. (2)

Private Hobbs recorded in his diary that Colonel Burrell wasted no time in preparing a fixed defensive position, writing that as soon as the cheers were done, “We then tore up the planks and built a kind of barricade under the superintendance of our Civil Engineer who came from New Orleans with us.” Burrell hoped that the barricade of planks—buttressed by materials left in the warehouse—would serve as a dependable breastwork and protect his men from enemy fire directed from the city.  He also had them remove about fifty feet of planking from the shore end, creating a gap that would make it difficult—if not impossible—for the enemy to rush down the wharf and assault the warehouse. (3)

On the last two days of December, Colonel Burrell and his men noticed that “many men in citizen’s attire had returned and were strolling around” the previously abandoned city. The troops didn’t harass the “citizens,” but they were suspicious of their true intent, and Burrell made additional defensive preparations. He had every reason to be wary. (4)

“The Prince”

Confederate general John Bankhead
Magruder (1807–1871) was known as “The
Prince” for his gentlemanly manners. Lawrence
T. Jones III Texas Photograph Collection, Southern
Methodist University.
On October 10, 1862, Brigadier General John Bankhead Magruder succeeded the much-maligned General Hebert as commander of Confederate forces in Texas. In Magruder—a professional soldier (and erstwhile actor) nicknamed “The Prince” for his courtly manners—the citizens of Galveston got a commander with the “dashing and brilliant
qualities” they had so desired in Hebert.

Born in Virginia in 1807, Magruder graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1830 and served in the Seminole Wars in Texas and in the Mexican War (earning brevets for distinguished service). He was still in the army at the start of the Civil War but resigned his
commission when his native Virginia seceded from the Union. He secured a commission as a colonel in the Confederate States Army and was quickly promoted to brigadier general and then major general by the end of 1861. He executed brilliant maneuvers in the Battle of Yorktown in the spring of 1862 by marching and countermarching his troops, giving Union commanders the impression of a much larger force than he actually had. Magruder performed poorly in the Seven Day Battles in the summer of 1862, however, and General Robert E. Lee reassigned him to command the District of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Magruder arrived in Houston, Texas, in November 1862, to an enthusiastic reception: the citizens honored him with a parade, and the newspapers showered him with encomiums, focusing on his previous military achievements, rather than his recent failures. Famed Texas Ranger, journalist and Confederate officer John S. “Rip” Ford declared that Magruder’s arrival “was equal to the addition of 50,000 men to the forces of Texas.” Another wartime Galvestonian, Thomas North, concluded simply that Magruder “suited Texas” but also made clear what Texans expected of Magruder, and soon: “to retrieve the disgraceful loss of Galveston.” (5)

Magruder certainly recognized the strategic importance of retaking Galveston, writing: “In
a word, in my judgment, Texas is virtually the Trans-Mississippi Department, and the railroads of Galveston and Houston are virtually Texas. For whoever is master of the railroads of Galveston and Houston is virtually master of Texas, and this is not the case with any other part of Texas.”

The Plan to Retake Galveston

Therefore, Magruder wasted no time in making plans to fulfill expectations. Indeed, en route to Houston from Virginia, he began to question his entourage on the prospects of retaking Galveston. He showed particular interest in the opinion of Major Caleb G. Forshey, a onetime instructor at a military school for boys on the island. Now a consulting engineer preparing Confederate defenses on Virginia Point across Galveston Bay, Forshey had naturally given thought to how best to attack the Union forces. One historian has speculated that Forshey may have even “designed hypothetical attacks” while teaching his students. When Magruder asked Forshey about the feasibility of recapturing Galveston, Forshey quickly replied with an answer that surely appealed to Magruder’s aggressive nature: “General, I think the best plan is to resolve to retake it, and then canvass the difficulties.” (7)

In a note a few days later, Forshey advised Magruder that a land attack—at night—supported by two or three boats coming down the bay would force the enemy to “evacuate the entire bay” and declared that his “confidence of success is…increasing.” Magruder adopted Forshey’s plan but faced two significant obstacles: insufficient infantry and artillery to make a concerted land attack and, more importantly, no vessels to make the attack through the bay. Unfazed and ever resourceful, Magruder used his authority to corral soldiers and guns scattered across the upper Texas coast and brought them to Virginia Point in preparation for the attack. (8)

To build an ersatz “navy,” Magruder called on Leon Smith, an old friend from his days in California and fighting in Texas. Smith was a native New Englander and veteran seaman with experience commanding ships on mail and shipping routes in the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Having adopted the Confederate cause and the unofficial rank of “Commodore,” Smith arranged to equip two side-wheel steamers—the Bayou City and the Neptune—with heavy guns. As an added touch, Magruder asked Smith to put large bales of cotton on the decks
“to give the appearance of protection.” The aptly named “cottonclads” (a moniker borrowed from the ironclad” steamships being used by both sides) were ready within a week. (9)

Magruder promised Smith 150 men for each of the steamers—“taking citizens and soldiers from all quarters”—but had no success in recruiting them on such short notice. Two regiments of cavalry— the Fifth and Seventh Mounted Volunteers— were in Harrisburg, Texas,where Smith was readying the cottonclads. Colonel Tom Green, commanding the Fifth Texas, drew the regiments into line, and declared, “I want 300 volunteers who are willing to die for Texas, and are ready to die now.” A soldier in the ranks recalled that “the whole line stepped two paces in front.” With more volunteers than were needed, officers detailed men from each company to serve as sharpshooters and boarding parties upon the Bayou City and Neptune. The cavalrymen—who were all from inland Texas and had almost certainly never seen the sea—were dubbed “horse marines." (10)

Magruder had originally planned his attack for the night of December 27, 1862, but delayed it until New Year’s Eve on the advice of chief engineer Julius G. Kellersberger, who reported that the tides would be more amenable to an attack that night. The delay gave Smith time to fully prepare the Neptune and Bayou City; Magruder also used the time to scout the Union defenses on Kuhn’s Wharf and to map routes of attack.

“The Prince” was now ready.

Restless Nights

Whether due to knowledge of General Magruder’s plans or premonitions of them, an uneasiness obtained among Galveston’s citizens, soldiers and sailors on both sides and even loved ones far away as the day of the Confederate attempt to retake Galveston approached; they expressed the trepidations in letters and in private journals.

Galveston attorney William P. Ballinger wrote in his diary on December 30, 1862: “Gen. Magruder will attack the Yankees at Galveston by water and land tomorrow night…If the Yankees fight well it will be a desperate affair and our loss may be terrible, but if we succeed entirely of which I think there are reasonable hopes it will be a brilliant affair. Galveston will certainly suffer great injury and may be entirely destroyed.” (11)

Lieutenant James Black, a soldier with the First Texas Heavy Artillery, wrote frequently to his wife, Patience, who was at home with her family near Waco, Texas. On December 30, 1862, he wrote her, “We are now on the eve of some important movement. Our officers are very busy in making preparation, but the purport of their intentions are kept a secret from the soldiers.” The next day, he knew more and wrote again, “The long looked for fight will come off tomorrow morning. We are very busy in making preparations,” and closed, “I will write you again as soon as I return from the island—if I live. If I should be one of the unlucky ones that should fall on the battlefield—which probably will be the case—you will treasure this last epistle from the idol of your heart.” (12)

Private Alexander Hobbs, a soldier with the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry, had begun a journal in late November when the regiment left the Bay State. On December 28, 1862, he anxiously confided, “Our position is rather unpleasant as they could destroy us in a few minutes from the streets by a well-directed fire we do not dred them much as our gun boats could shell them out of the city at least we think so we are prepared to do what little we can in case of an attack which we expect every night we are obliged to sleep on our arms which is extremely disagreeable.” Yet he couldn’t help but admit in his entry the next day, “Thare is something very exciting in being turned out in the night by the sound of a gun and expect evry moment to be attacked.” (13)

On December 30, 1862, marine Henry O. Gusley—aboard the USS Westfield—wrote in his diary, “Everything is quiet in town, these bold guerillas not daring to attack the few hundred Yankees there.” (14)

He was mistaken.  In but one night’s time, Hobbs, Gusley and Black—and their comrades
on both sides—would experience enough excitement for a lifetime.


(1) Charles P. Bosson, History of the Forty-Second Regiment, Infantry, Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862, 1863, 1864 (Boston: Mills, Knight, & Co., 1886), 62.
(2) Alexander Hobbs diary entry, December 25, 1862, MS 370, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library (hereafter Hobbs Diary), Rice University, Houston, TX.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Bosson, History of the Forty-Second, 85.
(5) Edward T. Cotham, Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 99; Thomas North, Five Years in Texas: Or, What You Did Not Hear During the War from January 1861 to January 1866 (Cincinnati: Elm Street Printing, 1871), 106–7.

(6) OR, series 1, vol. 26, part 2, 261.
(7) Cotham, Battle on the Bay, 105–6
(8) OR, ser. 1, vol. 15, 885
(9) Ibid., 908.
(10) Ibid.; Galveston Daily News, January 5, 1914.
(11) Cotham, Battle on the Bay, 105.
(12) Galveston Daily News, December 20, 1936
(13) Hobbs Diary, December 28–29, 1862.
(14) Edward T. Cotham, The Southern Journey of a Civil War Marine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006). 128. 

You can learn more about the thrilling history of Galveston and the Civil War in:

Galveston and the Civil War: An Island in the Maelstrom

No comments: