Link To This Page — Contact Us —
The Battle of Galveston
January 1, 1863 in Galveston, Texas
Col. Isaac S. Burrell and Cdr. W.B. Renshaw, U.S.N.
Confederate Forces Commanded by:
Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder
**Missing and Captured
Conclusion: Confederate Victory
In the fall of 1862, Pres. 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 Confederate 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 December 24,1862, 3 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.
Gen. John Magruder took command of Confederate forces in Texas on November 29, and he was determined to force the Federals from Galveston and its bay. First, he had 2 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 2-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 7 blockading Union warships.
On December 31st, 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 January 1. 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.
At 3:00 A.M. on January 1st, 4 Confederate gunboats appeared, coming down the bay toward Galveston. Soon afterward,the ships opened fire before dawn, and the Confederates commenced a land attack. The Union forces in Galveston were 3 companies of the 42nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment under the command of Col. Isaac S. Burrell.
The Harriet Lane sank the Neptune when it tried to ram the Union ship, but men from the Bayou City boarded and seized the Union vessel despite the explosion of their own heavy cannon. Renshaw's flagship, the Westfield , ran aground, and the commander died trying to blow up his ship rather than surrender it. The other Union ships sailed out to sea, ignoring Confederate surrender demands, which could be enforced only upon the abandoned Union infantry in town.
Cdr. W.B. Renshaw's flagship, U.S.S. Westfield , ran aground when trying to help Harriet Lane and, at 10:00 A.M., she was blown up to prevent her capture by the Confederates. Galveston was in Confederate hands again although the Union blockade would limit commerce in and out of the harbor.
When Maj. Gen. John Bankhead Magruder replaced Hébert in the fall of 1862, the new district commander began to organize for the recapture of Galveston. For a naval attack, he placed artillery and dismounted cavalry from Sibley's brigade, led by Col. Thomas Green, aboard 2 river steamers, the Bayou City and the Neptune , commanded by Capt. Leon Smith. Magruder gathered infantry and cavalry, led by Brig. Gen. William R. Scurry, and supported by 20 light and heavy cannons, to cross the railroad bridge onto the island to capture the Union forces ashore. To meet the attack, Renshaw had 6 ships that mounted 29 pieces of heavy artillery.
Back on shore, the 3 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.
Magruder had allowed a 3-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.
When the Confederates noticed that the Union ships were taking flight, they tried to stop the retreat but managed to capture only 1 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. 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."
Magruder had retaken Galveston with a loss of 26 killed and 117 wounded. Union losses included the captured infantry and the Harriet Lane, about 150 casualties on the naval ships, as well as the destruction of the Westfield. Galveston remained the only major southern port still in Confederate hands at the war's end. On June 2, 1865, the city was formally surrendered by Maj. Gen. E. Kirby Smith.