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Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston

Table of Contents and Excerpt

Table of Contents
1. The War Is Postponed
2. A Safe Condition
3. Warming Up for War
4. The Island City Chooses Sides
5. City in the Sea
6. The Blockade Begins
7. A Pessimistic Assessment
8. Thomas Chubb and the Royal Yacht
9. The Threat of Bombardment
10. Captured by Ferryboats
11. The Infantry Arrives
12. The Prince and His Players
13. From Glorieta to Galveston
14. Prince John Plans His Next Production
15. The Battle of Kuhn's Wharf
16. Cottonclad Victory
17. After the Battle
18. A Trap Fails to Close
19. Still Another Disaster off Galveston
20. An Entrenched Camp
21. Treated like a Conquered City
22. Running the Blockade
23. The "Closing Act of the Rebellion"

Galveston is one of the best-documented, but least-appreciated, American Civil War sites. Although the number of books written about the Civil War seems to be almost infinite, most histories of this conflict ignore the Island City of Texas entirely. This historical anonymity is undeserved. From the appearance off its shores in 1861 of the first blockading Union gunboat to the surrender of the last major Confederate force in 1865, Galveston was the focal point of Civil War activity in the Southwest.

Galveston found itself at the center of this struggle thanks to the geographic forces that stimulated settlement of the island in the first place. The City of Galveston lies at the northeastern end of the island of the same name, across from the southwestern tip of the Bolivar Peninsula. Through the relatively narrow gap between these two points must pass the immense volume of water that is necessary for the tides to alternately raise and lower the water level in the roughly five hundred square miles of Galveston Bay. Physics dictates that at the point of this constriction, the water must pass relatively swiftly, carving out a channel that is deep enough to permit passage of oceangoing vessels. The result is that the eastern end of the island shelters one of the finest natural harbors on the entire Gulf of Mexico.

Because of the inherent natural advantages of this harbor, the City of Galveston was incorporated on its shores in 1838. By 1860, Galveston had grown to be the second-largest city in Texas (only San Antonio was slightly larger). When the Civil War broke out in 1861, therefore, Galveston was not a long-established, decaying port city like many of the other major Southern cities. Instead, Galveston was a relatively new, rapidly growing, and vibrant town, filled with people who were attracted to its seemingly unlimited economic possibilities.

Many of the people who had swelled the population of this new city in the decade preceding the war were not native Americans. Even by the 1860's, Galveston had already become a significant gateway for immigrants to the United States, and many of these new arrivals chose to stay in the Galveston area. According to the 1860 census, almost 40 percent of the nonslave residents of Galveston County were of foreign birth, with the bulk of these immigrants coming from Germany. These immigrants brought with them new arts, skills, and trades that were far different from the occupations commonly associated with the agrarian South.

The Island City these immigrants helped produce was not only very different from other cities in Texas, but also different from other large cities in the South. There is an unfortunate historical tendency to lump all of the large cities of the antebellum South together and treat them as nothing more than extensions of the plantation system. Under this view, Southern cities functioned merely as places where cotton and other agricultural crops grown by slaves were aggregated and exchanged for manufactured goods produced elsewhere. Such a characterization is particularly misleading in the case of Galveston.

To be sure, the Island City did serve as the most important place in Texas at which cotton was gathered and then exported. Of the 300,000 bales of cotton produced in Texas in 1860, over 200,000 were compressed and loaded for export at Galveston. Other prominent exports were sugar (15,000 barrels) and molasses (9,000 barrels). Lesser exports included such diverse items as wool, deerskins, hides, cottonseed, and tobacco.

It is also true that Galveston, like most large Southern cities of the time, had significant connections with slavery. After all, the island had served as a favored destination for smugglers of slaves since at least 1816, when Jean Lafitte and other pirates had made it a major port of call for this illicit trade. It was thus no accident that by 1860, the largest slave market west of New Orleans was located in Galveston. This auction house was owned and operated by John Sydnor, an influential citizen who was also the city's former mayor.

Although the trading of slaves was a significant business in Galveston, these slaves were typically sent elsewhere to live and work. Census records for 1860 reveal that the population of the City of Galveston included 1,178 slaves and only two free blacks. While these slaves and freedmen made up only 16.15 percent of the city's population in 1860, slaves comprised more than 30 percent of the state's total population at that time. Galveston's slaves were predominantly personal or household slaves, who were for the most part well cared for and frequently treated almost as members of the family.

Slave labor and agricultural exports were undeniably important elements of Galveston's growing economy. But to focus only on these aspects of commercial traffic is to miss what was really going on in Galveston just before the war. Because of its situation as the finest natural port between New Orleans and Vera Cruz, Galveston had gradually become a major center of relatively sophisticated manufacturing and service industries catering to the shipping trade. Thus, for example, by 1860, Galveston had two iron foundries manufacturing and repairing ship engines, along with thriving businesses that made sails and rope. The progressive business community had also built a railroad bridge from the island to the mainland, introduced ice, and laid a novel system of gas pipes to provide lighting and cooking fuel.

To accommodate ship passengers, Galvestonians had opened a variety of hotels and entertainment facilities. The city also boasted a number of doctors, lawyers, craftsmen, and other professionals that was disproportionately large compared to its nonslave population of just over 6,000 people in 1860. As befitted the largest professional community west of New Orleans, the city was served by a newspaper (the Galveston News) that was the most important paper in Texas and arguably one of the most influential papers in the South. Its editor, Willard Richardson, was a tireless crusader in favor of states' rights, secession, and reopening the slave trade.

Richardson was also justifiably enthusiastic about the Island City's prospects. The 1861 Texas Almanac (which Richardson edited on behalf of his newspaper) noted that commercial traffic in and out of Galveston had been growing by an average of 50 percent per year during the period from 1858 to 1860, and predicted that "the steady increase in the trade and general business of Galveston leaves no room to doubt that it must ere long rival many of the principal sea ports of the South."

Thus, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Galveston was what today we might call a "boom town," a flourishing new city with economic power and influence that extended well beyond its boundaries. The Civil War would bring many changes to Galveston, as with other Southern towns. But unlike the small towns, river crossings, and farms that through the fortunes of this war often became the scenes of memorable battles, Galveston was not destined to host a campaign involving immense, conflicting armies. Nor was it fated to be the scene of a brief confrontation that lasted a few days and then moved on to some other, usually rural, location. Instead, Galveston had the unique distinction of being a relatively large city that was under the threatening guns of one side or the other (and occasionally both) for almost the entire war.

The reason that Galveston received such attention from the military leaders on both sides of this conflict is not difficult to determine. Desperate to secure a reliable source of cotton for their textile mills, the New England states agitated from the outset of the war for invasion of the Texas Gulf Coast. Because of its railroad connections and port facilities, Galveston was logically a principal target for any invading force with both commercial and military objectives. The same economic and military factors that focused Union attention on Galveston, however, also made it an important place for the Confederacy to defend.

These conflicting strategic objectives led to a struggle for control of the island that culminated in the dramatic Battle of Galveston. On the morning of January 1, 1863, Galveston Harbor was the site of one of the most unusual and poignant battles of the entire Civil War. Among the many unique features of what has been called the "most exciting military event in Texas since the Battle of San Jacinto" and "one of the tidiest little victories of the war" were:

a successful combined land and sea assault by Confederate forces;
a battle in an urban setting with artillery and sharpshooters deployed in the upper stories and on the roofs of buildings;
the successful use of cottonclad steamers loaded with shotgun-wielding sharpshooters to defeat Union gunboats;
one of the earliest uses of rail-mounted artillery in military history;
a duel between Confederate field artillery and Union gunboats;
an unsuccessful charge by wading Confederates against Union troops barricaded on a wharf;
the explosive destruction by the Union naval commander of his flagship (and inadvertently himself) in an attempt to avoid capture; and
one of the best-documented cases of a father and son serving on opposite sides in the same battle.
Despite its unique features, there are many reasons why the Battle of Galveston in 1863 has not received the attention lavished on more familiar conflicts in other theaters of the war. Texas was far from the center of military action, not to mention the major media centers (North and South) of nineteenth-century America. More importantly, the strange, almost comical, manner in which this battle was conducted did not lend itself easily to crafting dramatic tales of heroism or martial skill for either side. Finally, the "battlefield" (both land and water) on which this engagement took place was so altered and obliterated by postwar commercial expansion of the City of Galveston that it furnished very limited possibilities for monuments.

This is not to say that the Battle of Galveston was unimportant or uninteresting, or is undeserving of study. On the contrary, as I hope to demonstrate in this narrative, the story of how Galveston fell under Union control, and was then recaptured by Confederate forces who occupied it until after the last Rebel army surrendered, is one of the great untold stories of the war.

Unfortunately, it is a story whose importance has all too often been overlooked. From a military standpoint, the Confederate recapture of Galveston at the beginning of 1863 had enduring and far-reaching consequences. A Union officer captured there ruefully declared that "in not holding Galveston we lost the key to Texas." Reflecting back on the course of the war near its conclusion, Union General Nathaniel P. Banks admitted in a letter to the Secretary of War that Galveston's loss had been a great strategic impediment to the North. If only the Union could have maintained possession of Galveston Island, Banks lamented, it would have rendered entirely "unnecessary" his disastrous campaign up the Red River in 1864. That campaign, by itself, cost almost ten thousand casualties and undoubtedly prolonged the war.

If things had gone only slightly differently, Galveston might now be remembered in Civil War history as the starting point of the great Union invasion of Texas near the end of the war. Instead, it is remembered (albeit dimly) as a haven for blockade runners and as the answer to a trivia question: What was the last major Southern port still in Confederate hands when the final Confederate army signed surrender terms off its shore in June 1865?

On closer reflection, the substance of this question is not really trivial at all. How did Galveston, which as an island would seem to be unusually vulnerable to attack, hold out for so long? Part of the answer is clearly that the Union chose to apply most of its overwhelming resources elsewhere. But a good case can also be made that the Confederacy was more successful in defending Texas than any other state that took part in the rebellion. Yet, at this distance in history, this unusual success is difficult to fully explain.

It was certainly not due to an abundance of military resources, which were almost always in short supply in Texas. Nor can it be attributed to the impact of a single, visionary commander, like Robert E. Lee, who implemented some brilliant plan of strategic defense along the Gulf Coast. Instead, Texas was saved at battles such as Galveston, Sabine Pass, and the series of engagements that comprise the Red River Campaign of 1864, primarily because Union commanders made more critical strategic and tactical errors in the face of determined resistance than their Confederate counterparts.

These errors are only apparent if the events preceding and following the battles are viewed in their proper context. It is unfortunate that the Civil War is often studied as though its battles were staged on a series of chessboards, where the troops materialized in carefully planned formations, performed their functions, and then exited the board at the end of the game to appear without explanation on some other chessboard at another time and place. But to study a campaign such as the subject of this book in this episodic fashion is to miss what is perhaps the most important part of the story. In order to understand the struggle for Galveston it is essential to examine how each of the major players came to be on this particular stage at the same time; it is also important to learn why other scheduled players missed the performance entirely.