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Especially Texan is a weekly dive into historical topics that make up the tapestry of Texas history.
Especially Texan: The First Texas Navy
The Texas Navy still holds a special place in the hearts of many Texans. Originally consisting of four ships, the navy sought to protect supply lines for the republic. Continue reading to learn more about the first Texas Navy.
The majority of early settlers coming to Texas came by sea from New Orleans or Mobile to Galveston, Matagorda Bay, or the mouth of the Brazos River. Lumber, wool, and cotton from Texas were sent back to New Orleans by sea. Thus, when hostilities broke out between Texas and Mexico, the General Council of the provisional government of Texas realized the need for a navy to protect the lines of supply between New Orleans and Texas. On November 25, 1835, the General Council passed a bill providing for the purchase of four schooners and for the organization of the Texas Navy.
The same bill provided for the issuance of letters of marque to privateers until the navy should become a reality. Several letters of marque were issued in late 1835 and early 1836, and the small privateers helped the Republic of Texas greatly through captures and protection of the coast. In January 1836 the schooners were purchased, and the Texas Navy came into being. The vessels were the 60-ton William Robbins, which was converted to a schooner of war and rechristened Liberty, the 125-ton Invincible, which had been built in Baltimore for the African slave trade, the 125-ton Independence, which had been the United States Revenue Cutter Ingham, and the 125-ton Brutus. On March 12 President David G. Burnet appointed officers for the ships, naming Capt. Charles E. Hawkins, who was senior captain, commodore.
This first Texas Navy lasted until the middle of 1837, by which time all of the ships had been lost. The Liberty took its first cruise from January to May 1836 and captured the Mexican merchant schooner Pelicano on March 5. In May it convoyed the schooner Flora with the wounded Sam Houston aboard to New Orleans. There the Liberty was detained for repairs and in July had to be sold because the Texas government could not pay the repair bill.
A like fate was narrowly missed by the Brutus and the Invincible, which were in New York in September 1836 for repairs. When it became evident that Texas could not pay the bills, the ships were to be sold, but Samuel Swartwout, customs collector in New York City, saved them by paying their expenses. The Independence made its first cruise from January to March 1836, sailing up and down the Mexican coast.
The vessel was later ordered to Galveston to ward off an expected invasion and eventually went to New Orleans for repairs; there Commodore Hawkins died at the age of thirty-six, leaving the ship in charge of Capt. George W. Wheelwright. In April 1837 the Independence, though undermanned, left New Orleans for Galveston and on the seventeenth was attacked by two Mexican ships. After a four-hour running battle, the Texas vessel was forced to surrender in sight of its destination. The capture enlarged the Mexican navy to eight ships.
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With half of the fleet gone, Secretary of the Navy Samuel Rhoads Fisher and H. L. Thompson, who succeeded Hawkins as commodore, decided that the proper action was to take a cruise with Fisher along “to inspire confidence in the men.” Sam Houston opposed any cruises by the navy because he thought that the best way to defend a coast was to stay close to it. Nonetheless, the two ships left Galveston on June 11, 1837, and cruised about the Gulf raiding Mexican towns and capturing vessels until August 26, when they returned to Galveston. The Brutus was able to cross the bar and enter Galveston harbor, but the Invincible, being of greater draft, chose to wait for more favorable conditions. Early the next morning, the vessel was attacked by two Mexican ships. The Brutus, in going out to aid, ran aground on a sandbar. The Invincible continued to fight until evening and then attempted to enter the harbor but in so doing also went aground. The Invincible was destroyed that night, but the Brutus was saved, only to be lost in a storm in October 1837.
Between September 1837 and early 1838, Texas had no ships. Then the brig Potomac was bought. It never made a cruise and was used only as a receiving ship at the Galveston Navy Base. Thus there was virtually no Texas Navy between September 1837 and March 1839, when the first ship of the second navy was commissioned.
Texas was fortunate in that several factors prevented Mexico’s making a sea attack during this period. These included the effects of the panic of 1837 on Mexico, the revolt in northern Mexico resulting in the establishment of the Republic of the Rio Grande, and the French blockade and seizure of the Mexican fleet at Veracruz. In October and November 1836, Congress realized the necessity for a larger navy and passed an appropriation bill for $135,000 to buy four new ships. President Houston approved the bill, but no action was taken until the first navy had been completely lost.
On November 4, 1837, another bill was passed providing for the appointment of a commissioner who was to go to Baltimore to contract for the building of six ships to cost $280,000. The bill was approved, and Samuel M. Williams was appointed commissioner. In November 1838 Frederick Dawson, of Baltimore, agreed to build the ships. In the same month the steam packet Charleston was bought and renamed the Zavala. In March 1839 its fitting out was completed, and it was commissioned in the second Texas Navy.
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