Battle of Galveston: A Turnaround Victory for the Confederates

By Barbara Saunders

New Year’s Day 1863 rang in with a decisive “bang” in Galveston.
Starting at dawn, Confederate Major General John B. Magruder waged one of the more offbeat campaigns of the Civil War, and succeeded in recapturing Galveston from Union troops, which had occupied the city since October, 1862.
It doesn’t seem very likely that one damaged Confederate river-steamer could prevail over a fleet of six mighty U.S. warships. Yet that’s essentially what happened in the Battle of Galveston.
Initially, Magruder had only two river steamboats packed with cotton bales around their armaments – or cotton clads– the Neptune and Bayou City. Modest as this disguised mock-navy was, the cotton-clads caught the Union forces off-guard at a decisive point in the Battle of Galveston. Ultimately, only the Bayou City remained to carry the battle to Confederate victory, against pretty amazing odds.

Magruder’s initial land attack on 260 Union soldiers barricaded at Kuhn’s Wharf at the bottom of 18th Street had not gone well. The Confederates opened at around 5 a.m. with cannon fire from The Strand on the corners of 20th and 21st streets, flanking the Hendley Building. The Confederate cannons aimed at Kuhn’s Wharf and the nearest Union warships in the harbor, but the Union troops were relatively well-protected and able to return even greater fire-power.
The barricaded Union soldiers had torn up some of the wharf’s planking, so Magruder tried sending his troops onto the wharf by scaling up ladders from the shoreline. But the ladders proved too short and the Neptune and Bayou City were also late in arriving from Half Moon Shoal, near present-day Texas City. Magruder was considering retreat when the cotton-clads, manned by some 300 sharpshooters, finally steamed into the harbor and opened fire on the USS Harriet Lane.
At first, even this seemed none too promising, as the Bayou City sustained significant damage trying to ram the Harriet Lane, and the Harriet Lane sank the Neptune in short order. Still, the Bayou City persevered, ramming the Harriet Lane again in the wheel, causing the two vessels to lock. At this point, the valor of the cotton-clad crews triggered a turnaround victory for the Confederates.

The Rebels from the Bayou City began boarding the mighty Harriet Lane, whose captain, Jonathan M. Wainwright, was killed when he refused to surrender. Most other Harriet Lane officers were either killed or injured. Meanwhile, after the U.S.S. Westfield became grounded on a sandbar off Pelican Island, its captain and the Union fleet commander, William B. Renshaw, decided to blow up the ship, rather than let it be captured. However, the explosives detonated prematurely, costing Renshaw and some of the Westfield’s crew members their lives. Amid all this, the rest of the Union ships retreated during a three-hour truce, and the Union troops onshore surrendered.
Three of the Union ships that retreated – the Owasco, Sachem and Orpheus – had been in the central harbor closest to the Harriet Lane. According to some accounts, the Owasco had tried to approach the Harriet Lane, but was thwarted from responding by the presence of captured crew already on deck, arms overhead in surrender. The fourth, the Clifton, had tried unsuccessfully to pull the Harriet Lane from the sandbar close near the eastern edge of Pelican Island.
Figures vary considerably on the human toll of the conflict. Various accounts report that the Confederates lost between 25 and 50 soldiers, with another 117 wounded; estimated Union casualties were around 150, with another 300-400 captured.
A fter the Union fleet retreated back to New Orleans, Admiral David G. 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.”

Commemorative Events
Taking Place on the Strand
January 13 – 15, 2012

Battle Re-enactments
Lectures
Living History Encampments
Wet Plate Collodion Photography Demo
Tours
For a full schedule of events, visit
www.galvestonhistoricalsociety.com

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