In the fall of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln stepped up Union military operations in the trans-Mississippi areas. Cotton was running through Texas’s blockaded ports and Mexico’s unblockaded ports in exchange for arms and supplies to support Rebel armies. But even more important to Lincoln was a show of force in the area, both to counter France’s invasion of Mexico and to discourage that foreign power from aiding the Confederacy. By the end of October, a Union gunboat flotilla commanded by Com. William B. Renshaw had closed all the major harbors in Texas’s 385 miles of Gulf coast.
The most important of those ports was Galveston, which surrendered to Renshaw in early October. But because there was no infantry occupation force accompanying the warships, Union control existed no further than the range of the ships’ cannon. On Christmas Eve 1862, three companies of Massachusetts troops were put ashore at Galveston to occupy the town. The Union soldiers took a strong defensive position on one of the wharves, where they could receive support from the gunboats in the event of an attack.
Confederate Gen. John Magruder took command of Rebel forces in Texas on November 29, 1862, and he was determined to force the Yankees from Galveston and its bay. First, he had two river steamers, the Bayou City and the Neptune, converted to cotton-clad gunboats by the addition of cottonbale fortifications stacked on their decks and a few cannon. He planned a two-pronged attack to recapture the port; while he led infantry and artillery in an attack on the wharf, his new gunboats would simultaneously engage the seven blockading Union warships.
On New Year’s Eve, Magruder’s 1,000 man land force moved across the 2.5 mile railroad bridge to Galveston Island and took up a position in the town from which it would attack at first light on New Year’s Day 1863. The mass of Union soldiers on the wharf braced for the coming attack, barricaded their position, and tore the flooring up on the shore side of the wharf.
As dawn broke on January 1, 1863, Confederate Gen. John B. Magruder opened fire with his cannon on the 260 barricaded Union soldiers on Kuhn’s Wharf and on the closest of the Union warships in Galveston Harbor. The Union soldiers on the wharf were in a very secure position and suffered little from the cannon fire. They had torn up the wharf planking near the shore, forcing Magruder to send 300 of his men to attack with 50 scaling ladders, with which they were to climb up to the wharf from the pounding surf. The ladders turned out to be too short for the job, and the Rebels were forced to retreat through a withering fire from the Union soldiers as well as from the ships’ cannon. The huge cannon on the Union ships delivered such rapid and accurate fire that Magruder ordered his men to fall back to more protected positions an hour after opening the battle.
The Union navy was prepared for a land attack but not for the two cottonclad Confederate gunboats, the Bayou City and the Neptune, that came at them full steam down the narrow channel. The USS Harriet Lane was the first of the seven Union warships to receive the Rebel fire. About 1,000 sharpshooters on the cottonclads took a devastating toll on the Union gunners before the Neptune rammed the Harriet Lane. But the cotton-clad river steamer was not constructed for such use and was badly damaged, while the Union warship was hardly hurt at all. The Neptune quickly filled with water and settled on the bottom, but her decks were still out of the water and her men continued firing on the Union ship.
Then the Bayou City crashed into the Harriet Lane on her port side, causing the two vessels to be locked together. Sharpshooters on the Rebel ship forced the Union gunners to take cover, and a boarding party quickly secured the ship’s surrender. The guns on the Harriet Lane were then added to the Confederate fire that was turned on the remaining Union ships.
Fleet commander William B. Renshaw, on board the U.S. warship Westfield, ordered his seven warships in Galveston Bay to use their firepower to aid the Union soldiers on shore in repelling a Confederate dawn attack on January 1, 1863. The other ships did their job well, but the Westfield became grounded on a sandbar and even when assisted by the USS Clifton, could not be pulled free. Then Renshaw received word that one of his ships, the Harriet Lane, had been captured. The Rebels demanded the surrender of all Union ships but would let one ship depart with the crews from the others.
Confederate commander Gen. John Magruder had allowed a three-hour truce for the Union force to consider its fate, but Renshaw did not wait. Possibly panicstricken, he ordered the truce time to be used by his remaining ships to escape Galveston harbor. Meanwhile, he transferred the crew of the Westfield to another ship and prepared to destroy the still grounded ship before she could be captured. Somehow the Westfield’s magazine exploded prematurely, killing Renshaw and several members of his crew before they were able to get clear.
Back on shore, the three companies of Massachusetts soldiers who had repelled the morning attack did not know that Renshaw was pulling out the Union ships, and that they were to be abandoned on the wharf, which they had turned into a fortress. The men on shore were puzzled by the flags of truce flying from several ships. The Confederates notified them that negotiations were under way for the surrender of the Union warships and demanded their immediate surrender too. Feeling the situation was hopeless, the 260 Union soldiers gave up the fight.
When the Rebels noticed that the Union ships were taking flight, they tried to stop the retreat but managed to capture only one coal bark. The Union fleet retreated all the way back to New Orleans, where Adm. David G. Farragut court-martialed the commander who had taken over after Renshaw’s death.
Fascinating Fact: Farragut reported to the secretary of the navy that “the shameful conduct of our forces at Galveston has been one of the severest blows of the war to the Navy.”