Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

September 17, 2012

Anchors away in early Texas

By Gelene Simpson
Corsicana Daily Sun

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Members of José Antonio Navarro Chapter, Daughters of the Republic of Texas, always join with other sister chapters in September in remembering the Texian Navy. September 15th of the year 1835 marks the beginning of this arm of the Texian military.

Of course, I am always interested in anything having to do with the nay because that is the branch of the service in which  my late husband Harrell served. But the size an shape of the early Texian Navy was a great different from the appearance and capabilities of the United States Navy during the Korean Conflict when Harrell and his buddies walked the deck.

The first naval engagement of the Texas Revolution occurred near Velasco. In that engagement between a Texian privateer, the San Felipe and a Mexican war schooner, the “Correo,” the Mexico ship was forced to surrender unconditionally. Thus the Texian Navy won its first victory in the War for Independence on the high seas. This was even one month before the first significance arose in the land battle of the Texas Revolution at Gonzales.

According to “The New Handbook of Texas, Vol. 6” there are many details about the background of this naval feat. In the first place, it was important that many of the early settlers came to Texas by sea — probably from New Orleans or Mobile to Galveston, Matagorda Bay or “the mouth of the Brazos River.” Then the products of Texas, like lumber, wool and cotton, were sent back to New Orleans in the same manner. Therefore the first reason for a navy was to protect the supply line for Texas.

The General Council passed a bill to allow the purchase of four ships to establish the navy. But some measure had to be taken to serve until this navy could be organized. Therefore the bill also allowed the “issuance of letters of marque to privateers” in the  meantime. Some of the privateers greatly helped by capturing ships along the coast. The naval vessels purchased were the “60-ton ‘William Robbins,’ a former privateer later called ‘Liberty’; the ‘Invincible,’ a 125-ton ship built in Baltimore; the ‘Independence,’ a former U.S. Revenue Cutter; and the 125-ton ‘Brutus.’”

Texas also had some honors bestowed on the navy in March. Capt. Charles E. Hawkins received a great reward from President David G. Burnet. At that time the captain became the commodore of the Texian Navy. This was the beginning but this first navy survived only until 1837. As with any form of transportation, especially that involved in combat, there were necessary repairs and upkeep of these ships. And, sadly enough, Texas could not meet the payments. An Englishman named Samuel Swartwout came forward to pay the expenses. The “Independence” captured some small vessels along the Mexican coast, then went onto Galveston and finally on to New Orleans for repairs.

Later some action had to be taken when Commodore Hawkins died at a very young age, and one of the ships was captured by the Mexican Navy. The Texans were losing heart. To counter this turn of events, the Secretary of the Navy Samuel R. Fisher and Hawkins’ successor H.L. Thompson, decided to cruise around and make a brave showing. Sam Houston thought this plan was not the best way to defend a coast. He much preferred to have the ships stay close to the coast, not cruising around hoping to “inspire confidence in the men.”

Between September 1837 and early 1938, the Texian Navy had no ships. Then the brig ‘Potomac” was purchased. It was used more to the liking of Sam Houston, since it didn’t cruise around but stayed close to the Galveston Navy Base.

In October and November of 1836 a change took place. Congress summoned up the courage to authorize $135,000 to purchase four ships. President Houston approved, but nothing was done until November until 1837 when another bill allowed the appointment of a commissioner to make a contract for building six ships for $280,000. Frederick Dawson was to build the ships. Along with the purchase of the “Charleston,” which was renamed “Zavola,” these new ships became the second Texian Navy.

The “Texas Almanac,” 1972-73 tells of the Texian Navy as does the article on “Texian Navy” by James M. Daniel in “The New Handbook of Texas, Vol. 6” In January of 1843, Sam Houston had Congress pass an act authorizing the sale of the Navy, and in November, the entire fleet at that time, consisting of the “Austin,” “Wharton,” “Archer,” and “San Bernard,” was put up for auction. The people of Galveston didn’t want the ships to be sold, and so they all came to the auction in such a force as to prevent any bids being submitted. But in spite of their emotional response, the end of the operations of the Texian Navy came when the United States took over protection of Texas until the annexation.

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Gelene Simpson is a Daily Sun columnist. Her column appears on Tuesdays.