Tuesday, January 1, 2013

150 Years Ago Today - The Battle of Galveston!

"I have now to chronicle an event which will be remembered by us all while we live." - Alexander Hobbs, Forty-Second Massachusetts Infantry, Diary entry, January 1, 1863

The Battle of Galveston was fought 150 years ago today, January 1, 1863.

It is my pleasure to provide below an extended excerpt of my recent book, Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012), describing the battle, which one historian has called "a finalist, if not the outright winner, in a contest to select the strangest battle of the Civil War."

And A Very Happy New Year to All the Readers of my Blog!


Part I - A Slow Start

On December 31, 1862, no less than ten Union ships, gunboats and steamers were in position in the waters off of Galveston: Commander Renshaw’s flagship, the USS Westfield; the USS Harriet Lane, commanded by Captain Jonathan Wainwright; the USS Clifton, commanded by Lieutenant Richard L. Law; the USS Owasco; the USS Sachem; the USS Corypheus; and an assortment of other ships and tenders. Three companies of the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry, about 260 men and officers commanded by Colonel Isaac Burrell, manned a barricaded storehouse on Kuhn’s Wharf, protected in turn by the guns of the Union fleet.

General Magruder’s plan called for his land forces with more than twenty pieces of artillery to cross the two-mile-long railroad track connecting the mainland with Galveston Island; using the cover of night, sound discipline and the element of surprise, he hoped to have a two-mile-long line of men along the waterfront in place by midnight. Troops carrying scaling ladders would wade into the waters around Kuhn’s Wharf to attack the Massachusetts soldiers from the rear. Meanwhile, Leon Smith and his “cottonclads,” manned by the “horse marines,” steamed from Harrisburg on the Buffalo Bayou to the upper part of Galveston Bay, where they
received General Magruder’s orders not to launch their attack on the Union fleet until they heard the sound of artillery signal the land attack. The orders were accompanied by a typically flamboyant declaration from the general: “I am off, and will make the attack as agreed…The Rangers of the Prairie send greetings to the Rangers of the Sea.”(1)

Such was the plan, yet at nearly every step, there were delays and errors adding to a tragicomedy that earned the attack the sobriquet of “strangest battle of the war.” The missteps began with the traverse of the bridge. The mules were hitched to the guns, but—“proving refractory and refusing to go upon the bridge”—there was a delay as the animals were unharnessed, and the men had to pull the guns themselves, including several heavy siege pieces. (2)

In a letter to his sister, written soon after the battle, a Confederate scout wrote that “the troops and the long train of artillery looked grand drawing its…length along through the darkness…it made a magnificent show.” Magnificent it might have been, but it was also slow from having to manually pull the guns and because of new orders that had the long train take a circuitous route into Galveston to avoid detection. It was therefore 4:00 a.m. before the troops were in place. Satisfied that the line was established, General Magruder fired the signal gun, declaring, “Now boys, I have done my best as a private, I will go and attend to that of a general.” The battle was on. (3)

Part II - The Battle of Kuhn’s Wharf

Harper’s Weekly’s 1863 engraving of the fighting on Kuhn’s Wharf.

Only minutes after General Magruder fired the first gun, the two-mile long Confederate line opened a ferocious barrage of artillery and rifle fire directed at the gunboats in the harbor and the Union soldiers on Kuhn’s Wharf. “At 4 a.m. we were turned out by the firing of our pickets and we had not more than got out of the building on the wharf when a shot came whipping over our heads,” Alexander Hobbs, a private in the Forty-second Massachusetts, recorded in his diary, adding that the shot and shell “came from twenty or thirty guns within a few hundred yards of us tearing and crashing through the barricade within a few feet of our heads and going through the building we occupied…scattering the splinters in all directions.” (4)

Modern photograph of a column on the Hendley
Building in Galveston, which still bears scars from
Union gunboat fire during the Battle of Galveston. Photograph by James M. Schmidt
The Union gunboats protecting the wharf wasted little time in replying. The combination of fire from the Confederate artillery and the Union ships resulted in what one witness declared was an “awful roar.” At about 5:00 a.m.—it was still dark—Confederate soldiers plunged into the bay on either side of Kuhn’s Wharf with their scaling ladders. Until then, Colonel Burrell had ordered his men to stay low and hold their fire, but as soon as the enemy could be heard “splashing in the water,” the Massachusetts troops delivered a volley and then continued firing at will. The Confederate attack wavered under “a galling fire of grape and canister and musketry” from the gunboats and Union soldiers. It eventually failed owing to another tragic error: once placed in the water, the ladders proved too short to scale the wharf, and the Texans were forced to abandon their attack. (5)

The concentrated fire also disheartened Confederate artillerymen in and around the waterfront, and some of the men left their guns and began to straggle to the rear (despite standing orders to cavalrymen in the rear to “bayonet without ceremony any who hesitated” to return to the fight). Deeper in the city, the Confederate reserve force that had taken shelter “packed liked sardines” behind the Customhouse was also taking fire, such that one soldier remarked that “mortar and dust and brickbats and pieces of shells were about as thick as anyone ever saw weasels in a barnyard.” (6)

By all appearances, General Magruder’s ambitious plan had failed: retreating soldiers and gunners milled about in downtown Galveston in a “disconsolate mob” as he tried to organize an orderly withdrawal. The Union soldiers on the wharf, seeing the retreat, felt confident “that a victory would eventually be won.” Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that one Confederate soldier declared, “Every man’s countenance looked as long as hoe handle.” Yet all was not lost, for a cry arose in the Confederate ranks: “Here come the Gunboats under full headway!” and—in the words of the regimental history of the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry—“in less than fifteen minutes the whole aspect of affairs was changed.” (7)

Part III - “All The Steam You Can Crack On”

Leon Smith must have wondered at the delay in the Confederate attack, which he expected to begin after midnight on New Year’s Day. Likewise, during the two hours of fierce fighting in and around Kuhn’s Wharf, General Magruder might well have wondered what had happened to Smith’s cottonclads, which were supposed to distract and ram the Union gunboats that were now wreaking havoc on his force in Galveston. After not hearing the expected signal that the battle had started—and keeping to the strict orders that the land forces must start the fight—Smith ordered the cottonclad armada to retreat a few miles back up the bay and await some sign that General Magruder had launched his attack.

The Confederate “cottonclads” make their way down Buffalo Bayou en route to the Battle of Galveston.

 Once lookouts with Smith’s fleet spotted and heard the flash of guns in Galveston, the commodore gave the order to attack, reportedly yelling down the tube to his engine room, “Give me all the steam you can crack on!” So it was that at the critical moment the cottonclads—the Bayou City ahead of the Neptune—hove into sight in the early dawn, “puffing and snorting with high pressure steam and quivering in every timber,” as one Confederate soldier recalled, to press their attack. The Bayou City exchanged fire with the USS Harriet Lane, the cottonclad’s second round hitting home just behind the Lane’s port wheel, “making a hole large enough for a man to crawl through.” (8)

The Bayou City drove on toward the Harriet Lane as Confederate sharpshooters raked the Lane’s deck with rifle fire, driving the Lane’s sailors from their guns. The cottonclad aimed to ram the Union steamer but managed only a glancing blow that damaged its own pilothouse. Soldiers on the Bayou City dropped the boarding plank, but the angle between the two ships was too great; the stage fell into the water, was swept back and tore off more of the cottonclad’s already-damaged pilothouse. The wounded Bayou City then steamed past the Lane to turn and make another run.

In the meantime, the Neptune had closed on the Harriet Lane for its own ramming attempt. The Neptune’s complement of horse marines also delivered an effective fire toward the Lane’s deck, killing or wounding several of the men onboard, including its captain, Commander Jonathan Wainwright, who fell, killed in action. The Lane, though, had picked up enough steam to begin moving so that the Neptune struck the Lane, but ten feet behind the target of the starboard side-wheel. The collision mangled the Neptune’s own bow, and the frail cottonclad, “shaken from head to stern by the concussion,” began to take on water as well as fire from the rest of the Union fleet, now engaged in the fight. The Neptune backed off, and its pilot skillfully guided the now-sinking cottonclad to shallow water. (9)

It now seemed that the cottonclads—the “Rangers of the Sea”—were destined for a similar failure as the “Rangers of the Prairie.” Just as the Massachusetts soldiers on the wharf felt they had earned a victory, so too did the sailors on the Harriet Lane, who “threw their caps in the air with joy, supposing all was ended.” But all was not ended: the Bayou City had rounded again and hit the Lane abaft its port wheelhouse, running its own bow so far under that both ships were stuck fast together. Commodore Leon Smith—“cutlass in hand”—then boarded the Harriet Lane with fifteen to twenty other men to secure its surrender. (10)

Part IV - Confederate Victory

The USS Owasco saw the condition of its sister ship and bore down on the tangled mass of the Harriet Lane and the Bayou City, firing its guns and coming so close “that you might have thrown a biscuit aboard,” as one Confederate soldier wrote soon after the battle. The horse marines on the Bayou City and Neptune, as well as soldiers on shore, responded with a deadly fire, such that “the crowd of men on the Owasco’s decks seemed to melt like snow under a summer sun.” Smith had also brought the Lane’s prisoners on deck to serve as something of a “human shield,” and the Owasco’s captain—afraid of wounding or killing his comrades on the Lane—retreated. (11)

A white flag was hoisted up the Harriet Lane, officially announcing her surrender. Commodore Leon Smith then sent a party, commanded by Captain Henry Lubbock (son of the Texas governor), on one of the Lane’s boats to secure the surrender of the rest of the Union fleet. Lubbock’s boat first approached the Owasco to inquire who had charge of the fleet, and the crew was told that Commander Richard L. Law, aboard the USS Clifton, was in command. Meeting with Law aboard the Clifton, Lubbock demanded the surrender of the entire fleet. Law asked what terms Lubbock could offer, and the captain replied that the federals would be allowed “one ship to remove [their] people in, and the balance of [their] public property would be ours.” It was now about 8:00 a.m.; Law asked for a three-hour truce in order to consider the terms. (12)

That Law was in charge of the situation in the bay, and not the fleet’s commanding officer Commodore William B. Renshaw, aboard his flagship the USS Westfield, was owed to a mishap that had occurred many hours earlier. Leon Smith’s Confederate cottonclad armada, waiting
for the signal gun, had actually been spotted shortly after midnight by the Union fleet. Alerted by colored lanterns on the Harriet Lane—white for “enemy in sight” and red for “make ready for action”—Renshaw set out from Bolivar Point with the Westfield to block the cottonclads’
retreat but ran aground on Pelican Spit in the bay’s shallow water. The flagship lay helpless during the entire land battle for Kuhn’s Wharf and the cottonclads’ capture of the Harriet Lane. (13)

The entire Union fleet lay under white flags of truce as Law, aboard one of the Clifton’s gigs, reached Renshaw on the USS Westfield and delivered the Confederate’s surrender demand. Renshaw, perhaps mindful of Admiral Farragut’s admonition that if Galveston was attacked he must “make a defense that will do credit to the Navy,” refused the demand and terms and ordered Law to arrange for ships (the USS Saxon and USS Mary Boardman) to carry off the crew of the Westfield and take the fleet out of the harbor. (14)

In order to prevent the capture and salvage of his grounded flagship by the Confederates, Renshaw concluded to scuttle the Westfield. Once the crew was safely removed, Renshaw “poured turpentine over the forward [powder] magazine and…set her on fire with his own hand.” Renshaw then stepped down to join the crew of a small boat that would carry them off when yet another tragedy ensued: either the charge exploded prematurely before they reached a safe distance or, the charge not going off, Renshaw returned to the Westfield to check on the fuse, only to have it explode as they approached. “After the explosion, no living thing could be seen,” a Union engineer declared in his official report. Renshaw and the entire crew of the gig were killed instantly. (15)

Harper’s Weekly 1863 engraving of the destruction of the USS Westfield. The artist took some
liberties with events that took place separated by time and distance: the USS Harriet Lane is
shown in the left distance, under attack by the Confederate gunboats Neptune and Bayou City.
The grounded USS Westfield is at right, being blown up to prevent capture. The USS Owasco
is in the center of the view.

As the three-hour deadline approached, the Union fleet—under Renshaw’s orders—left the harbor, an act that disgusted General Magruder, who “would not believe for a moment that they would so dare pollute a flag of truce.” Meanwhile, on shore, Colonel Burrell— commanding the Forty-second Massachusetts Infantry—watched the Union gunboats disappear. Now “abandoned by his only support, not a sign of succor from any source, his position completely at the mercy of the enemy’s artillery, with riflemen posted in commanding and covered places,” he had no choice but to surrender. His officers and men were allowed to retain all their personal effects, yielding their canteens, knapsacks and haversacks to their captors. Colonel Burrell, in a time-honored tradition, offered his sword to Confederate general William R. Scurry, but the general politely refused, saying, “Keep your sword, colonel, a man’s done what you have deserves to wear it.” (16)

The Battle of Galveston was over.


(1) Francis R. Six Decades in Texas: Or Memoirs of Francis Richard Lubbock, Governor of Texas in War Time, 1861–63, A Personal Experience in Business, War, and Politics. Austin: Ben C. Jones, 1900, 440.
(2)Ibid., 434.
(3)Edward B. Williams, “A ‘Spirited Account’ of the Battle of Galveston, January 1, 1863,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly (hereafter SWHQ) 99, no. 2 (October 1995): 211; Charles W. Hayes, History of the Island and the City of Galveston, 2 vol., Austin, TX: Jenkins Garrett Press, 1974, 2:553.
(4) Hobbs Diary, January 1, 1863.
(5)Williams, “Spirited Account,” 211; Charles P. Bossom, History of the Forty-Second Regiment, Infantry, Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862, 1863, 1864. Boston: Mills, Knight, & Co., 1886, 95; Edward T. Cotham, Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998, 116.
(6) Williams, “Spirited Account,” 212; Theophilus Noel, Autobiography and Reminiscenses of Theophilus Noel (Chicago: Theo. Noel Company, 1904), 102–3.
(7) Freeborn County (Albert Lea, MN) Standard, May 15, 1890; Bosson, History of the Forty-Second, 98; Williams, “Spirited Account,” 212.
(8) Donald S. Frazier, Cottonclads! The Battle of Galveston and the Defense of the Texas Coast (Abilene, TX: McWhiney Foundation Press, 1998), 66; Robert M. Franklin, Battle of Galveston, January 1st, 1863 (pamphlet of speech given by Franklin to United Confederate Veterans, April 2, 1911, Galveston, TX, n.p., n.d.), 8; Bosson, History of the Forty-Second, 100.
(9) Franklin, Battle of Galveston, 8.

(10) Bosson, History of the Forty-Second, 102; Franklin, Battle of Galveston, 8.
(11) Williams, “Spirited Account,” 213; Cotham, Battle on the Bay, 126. 
(12) ORN, ser. 1, vol. 19, 469.
(13) Frazier, Cottonclads!, 64. 
(14) ORN, ser. 1, vol. 19, 404.
(15) Ibid., 456.
(16) Williams, “Spirited Account,” 213; Bosson, History of the Forty-Second, 109.

Learn more about the thrilling Civil War history of Galveston in Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom (The History Press, 2012).

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