Saturday, June 30, 2012

Galveston Research Summary #19 - Looking Out for the Blockade!

In his book, Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston, author and historian Edward T. Cotham justly declared that “the most important Civil War-era structure remaining in Galveston today is the Hendley Building.”

The building was home to the firm of William Hendley & Co.; established in 1845, it was one of the city’s first businesses.  From its first headquarters – a two-story wooden structure built on stilts – Hendley & Co. propelled the growth of the city’s maritime commerce.  The new headquarters was built from 1855-58 under the personal supervision of William Hendley.  The “building” was actually a row of four buildings which shared a uniform brick façade but were separated by interior fire walls.  Built in the Greek revival style, the columns, cornices, and ornamentation were made of granite brought from the North.(1)

The Hendley Building, Galveston, TX (Photo by James M. Schmidt, 2009) 

The building had a wooden cupola on its roof (long since removed) which provided an excellent point from which to observe both Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  From the first days of the Civil War a group of men was assigned as lookouts on top of the Hendley Building to keep an eye out for enemy vessels approaching the island.  The group called themselves the “J.O.L.O.’s.”  Although no one is certain what “J.O.L.O.” actually stood for, Ed Cotham and other historians have concluded that the last two letters likely stood for “lookouts” (historical novelist P. G. Nagle cleverly styled them the “Jolly Order of Look Outs”).(2)

The lookouts faithfully maintained a detailed record of their observations in a logbook that has fortunately been preserved (and professionally conserved) in Galveston’s historic Rosenberg Library.  I had the great pleasure and privilege of seeing the book on my recent trip to the library's GAlveston and Texas History Center (previous post here).

You can see an excellent Galveston Daily News photograph of the JOLO logbook here.

With the very first entry – “Wind fresh from the S. S. East…cloudy and heavy…Nothing perceivable in the offing” – on the morning of April 22, 1861, the lookouts (many of them expert mariners) began a diligent record of the weather, the sea, and the impressive amount of steamer and schooner traffic that passed through Galveston.  From time-to-time the lookouts pasted newspaper clippings into the book, including lampoons of northern soldiers and clergy, news of Confederated victories, proclamations, and the “Latest from Lincolndom.”  The logbook also includes a splash of color where the lookouts drew and painted a guide to signal flags and lights.(3)

Whether or not “jolly” was officially in their name, the lookouts did exhibit strokes of whimsy in their activities and in the logbook.  On a day in early May, the lookouts, fancying themselves as pirates, recorded that two of the men, “having been granted temporary letters of marque, made a short and successful cruise, bringing into ‘Point Hendley’ the following valuable prizes – taken by skillful maneuvering from…the Strand – one splendid water cooler and two dollars and seventy-five cents in cash.”  Perhaps as a taunt - or perhaps out of boredom - another lookout wrote a postscript to the log for a day in late June 1861:

Lincoln declines presenting himself; why we know not.  But it is still more evidence that he is not a man of his word as he promised to call on us by the 15th and has not done so.  He must have his hands full elsewhere.(4)

Only days later, as if on cue, the JOLOS made the following observation at 1:10pm on July 2, 1861: “Schooner in sight bearing N[orth]E[ast] 10 miles…Union Jack at her fore…pilot boat was sent out and the schooner hauled down her flags and set a white flag.”  A steamer (the USS South Carolina) - was in the schooner’s company.  The pilot boat returned with the report that “both vessels are armed and are a portion of the blockading squadron so long expected.”(5)

The war had finally come to Galveston.


1.    Edward T. Cotham, Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 29.
2.    Ibid, 29; P. G. Nagle, Galveston (New York: Forge, 2002), 204.
3.    Entries, April 22 and July 10, 1861, JOLO Observatory Record Book, Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library, Galveston, TX.
4.    Ibid, May 7 and June 20, 1861.
5.    Ibid, July 2, 1861.

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