By Logan Hawkes
Just about every loyal Texan knows the gallant story of General Sam Houston who led a rag tag army of free Texians into the Battle of San Jacinto, captured Mexican President and General Santa Ana, and helped launch the Republic of Texas into the history books.
But a closer look at history reveals the good General Houston, destined to become the first President of Texas, had more than a little help thanks to the dominance of another rag tag, throw together element of the Texas defense forces, a poorly equipped makeshift navy. Though little credit is given this small naval force by the history books, it is largely accepted within academic historical circles that the dominance of this hap hazard Texas Navy was probably the crowning influence and one of the primary reasons for Houstonís success. This is short version of the story.
The year was 1835 and already a constitutional congress had been assembled to develop the creed and code of a new Republic. And though a formal constitution was not adopted and signed until March 2, 1936, the beginning of a Texas naval force started in November of 1835 when the General Council of the provisional government authorized a fleet consisting of four schooners.
Purchased in New Orleans, the former United States Treasury cutter Ingham, which the Texans rechristened Independence, became the flag ship of the navy. This small ship, only 89-ft in length, was commanded by Charles E. Hawkins, a former US midshipman.
Cruising between Galveston and Tampico during the first three months of 1836, he captured a number of small coasters and fishing craft and generally disrupted the vital seaborne communications of Santa Anna's army.
From New Orleans to the tip of the Yucatan in southern Mexico, the Gulf coast was a wild and wooly region once dominated by a strong Spanish and French fleet, and the privateers that plied her waters.
South Padre Island, in fact, played a central role in the pioneering of this remote and unpopulated coastline, There were few ports of substantial habitation other than Veracruz, Matamoros, Galveston and New Orleans. By the early 1800s, the American Navy and the Mexican Navy were the primary and dominant fleets on the Gulf. But Louisiana was a new addition to U.S. territories, and the U.S. Navy was mostly concerned with securing the Port of New Orleans and had little interest in Texas waters except for occasional merchant vessels trading with ports in Mexico.
You wonít see this bit of information in most history books either, but it was the Texas fleet that commandeered or destroyed a number of not only Mexican naval ships, but a healthy number of U.S. vessels as well, many of which were loaded with munitions and supplies destined for Mexico and the resupply of Santa Anaís army. According to historians, it was this short lived Texas naval dominance in the Gulf that provided the opportunity for Houstonís forces to defeat Santa Ana in the famous defining battle at San Jacinto.
In spite of its small size and few trained sailors, the Texas Navy grew in prominence and strength, often depending on speed and stealth to defy the Mexican naval presence in the Gulf. Hawkings ordered a small contingent of Texas war ships to the Yucatan, which was like the New England of Mexico, the shipbuilding and sailor-producing region of the country. It was here that canoas - 50-60 ton vessels which formed the coastal trading and fishing fleet of Mexico - were built, manned, and operated. Just off the Yucatan coast were the Alacaranes and Areas Island, and outside those the larger islands of Mujeres and Cozumel. All were utilized at one point or another by the Texas Navy for operations against Mexican vessels.
At one point in its dominance of Yucatanís waters the small Texas Navy established a base on Isla Mujeres and planted the flag of the Republic, claiming it for it's own. According to research papers, it was the Mexicans' inability to comprehend and employ seapower that helped the Texans most. The new Republic's foe failed to blockade the Texas coast effectively and Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana's great overland invasion was blunted and turned back because of inadequate logistical support.
As mentioned earlier, the waters around South Padre Island and Boca Chica played a major role in the young Republicís fight for independence. The Mexican naval vessel, the General Bravo, originally christened the Moctezuma, was charged with policing the waters around the mouth of the Rio Grande. The small war ship was effective in its duty. The Mexican warship, wrote one young attorney, "aroused the indignation & resentment of the whole people (of Texas)." The attorney was William Barrett Travis.
The Texas schooner-of-war Invincible sailed south from Velasco under the command of Jeremiah Brown. On Easter Sunday, April 3, 1836, the Invincible attacked the Bravo. Brown splintered the vessel with cannon balls and left it ablaze on the beach at Boca Chica. In August of 1999, Hurricane Brett displaced the sands of Boca Chica and uncovered the remains of what is believed to be a Mexican naval vessel - the Bravo. The shipwreck is said to be still visible today at low tide, an approximately 70-foot long, elliptical array of sea life-infested wooden ribs protruding above the sand.
Historian Jonathan W. Jordan, author of "Lone Star Navy" (Potomac Books, 2006) doesn't equivocate in his assessment of Brown's engagement off Matamoros: "The Texas Navy, as much as the Battle of San Jacinto, saved Texas, and thereby altered the history of the American west."