Texas Navy

By: James M. Daniel

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: March 22, 2014

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. 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.

In June 1839 the first ship of the Dawson contract, the 170-ton schooner San Jacinto, arrived in Galveston. The 170-ton schooner San Antonio arrived in August, the 170-ton schooner San Bernard in September, the 400-ton brig Wharton in October, the 600-ton sloop-of-war Austin in December, and the 400-ton brig Archer in April 1840. In his choice of officers for the new navy, President Mirabeau B. Lamar attempted to appoint on merit rather than to make the commissions political plums. Edwin Ward Moore, who was only twenty-nine, was appointed commodore and chose the Austin as his flagship. By the early summer of 1840 the northern Mexican revolt was dying out, but a new one was flaring in Yucatán. In June the fleet sailed, leaving the brigs Archer and Wharton and the receiving ship Potomac in Galveston for protection against invasion. Moore had been ordered by Lamar to initiate friendly relations with the Yucatecans, which he did. James Treat was in Mexico City in the meantime negotiating for recognition and an end to the war. The Mexicans continued to lead him on until October, when he gave up. During this time the Texas fleet was ordered not to capture or fire on ships unless they fired first. In late 1840, Congress had been lulled by this unofficial armistice and had cut naval appropriations. Consequently, all of the fleet was decommissioned except the San Antonio and San Bernard, which were making a survey of the Texas coast from May to October 1841. The San Jacinto had been wrecked on the night of October 31, 1840, and after some more cruising the navy had returned to Galveston in April 1841. On September 18, 1841, an alliance was made between Texas and Yucatán. The latter agreed to pay Texas $8,000 a month for the upkeep of the Texas fleet. Lamar approved of this arrangement and ordered the fleet to leave for Yucatán. Moore left Galveston on December 13, 1841, with the Austin, the San Bernard, and the San Antonio for Sisal, Yucatán. Houston, who was inaugurated on the same day, promptly ordered the fleet to return. These orders did not reach Moore until March 1842, and he returned in May to Texas. The Yucatecans did not expect a Mexican attack for eight months or a year, so they suspended the agreement with the understanding that it could be renewed when the Texas Navy was needed again.

The San Antonio, in the meantime, had been ordered to New Orleans for refitting. On February 11, 1842, as the vessel was lying opposite the city of New Orleans, the only mutiny in the Texas Navy occurred. The crew, led by a marine sergeant, armed themselves, attacked the officers, killed one of them, and locked the others in the wardroom. The mutineers were quickly captured by United States authorities and were eventually punished. The San Antonio left New Orleans for Yucatán in September 1842 but never reached its destination and is presumed to have been lost in a storm.

About this time the Zavala, which had been allowed to rot because of lack of funds for repair, was run aground in Galveston to prevent sinking. In 1844 the vessel was broken up and sold for scrap. The rest of the fleet went to New Orleans to refit. Moore constantly had difficulty obtaining enough money to keep his ships sailing. One of Houston's ideas of economy was to withhold all naval appropriations made by Congress. Moore raised almost $35,000 on his own signature to repair the ships. The secretary of the navy wrote him saying that if Moore could not refit to go to sea, he should return to Galveston. Moore had no intention of returning to Galveston, however, since he feared that Houston would sell the navy. He therefore renewed negotiations with Yucatán, which was again being threatened by Mexico and was eager for the Texas Navy to lend its aid. Moore was ordered to report to William Bryan, Samuel M. Williams, and James Morgan, the naval commissioners. Houston had sent them to bring Moore back, but Moore talked them into letting him go to sea. In fact, Morgan accompanied the fleet on its cruise. One of Moore's greatest problems while in command of the navy was the recruiting of sufficient men. The scarcity of paydays in the Texas Navy discouraged prospective recruits. Finally enough men were obtained, and the fleet, composed of the Austin and the Wharton, sailed for Yucatán. On April 30, 1843, the vessels engaged a Mexican fleet including two large steamers, one of which was an ironclad. The battle was indecisive. Other engagements followed on May 2 and May 16. Meanwhile, on March 23, Houston had proclaimed the navy to be pirates and requested any friendly country to capture the ships and return them to Galveston. Moore set sail immediately upon receiving the news and docked at Galveston on July 14, 1843. The people of Galveston hailed Moore as a hero despite Houston's proclamation that he was a pirate. But Houston, still angry, dishonorably discharged Moore without so much as a court-martial. Moore appealed to Congress and finally got a fair trial in August 1844, in which he was found not guilty.

In January 1843 Houston had Congress pass an act authorizing the sale of the navy, and in November the entire fleet (the Austin, Wharton, Archer, and San Bernard) was put up for auction. The people of Galveston, incensed at the thought of selling the navy, attended the auction and by force prevented the submission of bids. Thus the navy was returned to the Republic of Texas. Nevertheless, the cruise ending in July 1843 marked the end of the operative career of the Texas Navy, as a truce with Mexico came that summer and the United States undertook to protect Texas until her annexation. In June 1846 the ships of the Texas Navy were transferred to the United States Navy. The officers of the Texas Navy desired to be included in the transfer, but seniority-minded United States naval officers opposed the proposal. After the transfer the Wharton, Austin, and San Bernard were declared unfit for service. In 1857 the claims of the surviving Texas Navy officers were settled, and the Second Texas Navy was no more.

Both the armed privateers and the first navy authorized by the General Council had accomplished a remarkable job of controlling the sea lanes along the Texas coast, thus allowing for supply of the Texas land-war effort while hindering and denying sea-borne logistic support to the invading Mexican forces. In particular, the denial of supplies to Antonio López de Santa Anna's forces on their way to San Jacinto was a major factor in the Texas victory. Similarly, the second navy achieved remarkable success in maintaining sea control of the Texas coast. Because of it the Republic of Texas was able to keep its ports open for urgently needed imports and vital exports to and from the United States. Simultaneously, Texas was able to contribute to keeping the Mexican navy bottled up in its own ports. This achievement clearly inhibited any realistic attempts by the Mexicans to mount a sea invasion to reconquer Texas during that period. The story of the hardships faced by those small fleets of battered ships and the intrepid seamen who manned them was largely forgotten until 1958, when Governor Marion Price Daniel, Sr., established a Third Texas Navy. Headquarters of the Third Texas Navy was reestablished at its original base in Galveston by Governor Preston Smith in October 1970. This largely commemorative, nonprofit organization was chartered by the Texas secretary of state in October 1972. It was designed to assure the survival of Texas naval history and has brought together people interested in preserving the history, rights, boundaries, water resources, and civil defense of Texas.

Linda Ericson Devereaux, The Texas Navy (Nacogdoches, Texas, 1983). Alex Dienst, "The Navy of the Republic of Texas," Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association 12–13 (January-October 1909; rpt., Fort Collins, Colorado: Old Army Press, 1987). C. L. Douglas, Thunder on the Gulf: The Story of the Texas Navy (Dallas: Turner, 1936; rpt., Fort Collins, Colorado: Old Army Press, 1973). Ernest G. Fischer, Robert Potter: Founder of the Texas Navy (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican, 1976). Jim Dan Hill, The Texas Navy in Forgotten Battles and Shirtsleeve Diplomacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937; rpt., Austin: State House, 1987). John Powers, The First Texas Navy (Austin: Woodmont Books, 2006). Samuel Murray Robinson, A Brief History of the Texas Navies (Houston: Sons of the Republic of Texas, 1961). Tom Henderson Wells, Commodore Moore and the Texas Navy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1960).

Time Periods:
  • Texas Revolution
  • Republic of Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James M. Daniel, “Texas Navy,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-navy.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 22, 2014

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