Gutsy Moves by "the Prince" of Gutsy Moves, General John Magruder at Galveston
Updated: Apr 11
by Gordon Thorsby
Attack of the Union Flotilla at Galveston. Courtesy of Harper's Weekly
New Orleans was taken at the end of April,1862 by David Farragut and the Federal Navy while there was concern that the French would install a puppet government in Mexico. Farragut dispatched a squadron of six Union gunboats under Commander William Renshaw to close Galveston. Galveston was the largest city in Texas at the time (app 7,000 white and slave) that exported 194,000 bales of cotton in 1860 with exports increasing 50% each year. The Union squadron captured it with little incident on October 4th, 1862 and another port was closed.
The South had to do something. She had no warships and no real armaments to deal with the squadron in Galveston. They had infantry, artillery, muskets and John B. Magruder. Let’s not underestimate Magruder. He took 10,000 men and held off McClellan’s 110,000 man
army on the Peninsula earlier in the Spring. If he was to reverse further misfortune at Galveston he was going to have to “make do" with what he had. He officially took command on November, 29, 1862, after been removed from the Army of Northern Virginia.
Magruder’s (right) plan was to take two side-wheeler packet boat steamers, the Neptune and Bayou City and convert them to Cottonclads arm them with a total of three guns. He would attack six gunboats, a tender, and four transports armed with twenty-nine guns. On the land, he would have Brig. Gen. William Scurry (fresh from Glorieta Pass) take 1,000 infantry, cavalry and 20 artillery to fire on the enemy vessels and take the Federal garrison. The now converted Neptune would have two 24 pounders, 150 volunteers to board vessels and sharpshooters. The Bayou City had a bow gun, a ram and 150 anxious volunteers. The odds were long and cotton did not stop much from a naval gun.
Renshaw’s (below right) gunboats included the converted revenue cutter Harriet Lane, Owasco, Clifton, Sachem, and Westfield. The Harriet Lane had been the planned supply vessel to Ft. Sumter that was the start of the war but the idea was nixed to send a less threatening vessel. The Clifton was a sidewheeler and converted New York Ferryboat
with six guns. The Owasco was a Unadilla class gunboat with six guns of various calibers, Sachem with five guns of two calibers and lastly, the sidewheeler flagship USS Westfield, armed with a powerful 100- pounder rifle, and five other lesser guns. The garrison was the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry that arrived on Christmas Eve with 264 men and it was not a full regiment.
Magruder's move to prepare for action was heard and the Federals were ready. The Confederate steamers entered the western portion of the bay in darkness on December 31 and cruised forward. At 5:00 AM, Magruder pulled the lanyard on one of the shore guns and the fight began. Naval gunfire in response was rapid and accurate. Confederate streamers in the bay and artillery on the shore took heavy pounding. The first sign of trouble was when the USS Westfield ran went hard aground. The Clifton went to help and together their contribution to fire support became limited.
The Massachusetts garrison was taken by a rush across a rail trestle by Scurry’s Texans. Harriet Lane fired into the infantry assault with effect and Harriet Lane became a primary target. The Cottonclads came intro range. Union naval gunfire was again accurate and the Harriett Lane tore through the Neptune. The Neptune failed to ram Harriet Lane and taking on water sank in shallow water. Victory now depended on Bayou City. Bayou City moved toward the Union gunboat and boarded her, killing most of the officers and a number of sailors. The gunboat was captured.
Meanwhile, Renshaw was still unable to free Westfield. The Confederates demanded Renshaw surrender or face a “newly acquired” Confederate gunboat Harriet Lane. With the flagship now threatened capture, Renshaw ordered the crew to abandon ship in order to scuttle her. Explosives were set and at 10:00 AM she went up but prematurely and the ensuing explosion took more than just the ship. Longboats from the Westfield were too close and Renshaw and 13 others were killed. There was nothing much left of Westfield except what floated. The remaining Union ships sailed back to New Orleans to report the awful results to Farragut.
Galveston was once again an open Southern port for import, export and blockade running. The city of Galveston was deserted. Losses in the battle amounted to approximately 150 Union officers and sailors, the entire Massachusetts garrison, loss of Westfield, Harriet Lane. and one port. Magruder’s losses were 26 dead and 117 wounded. It was a huge stain on Admiral David Farragut’s record. Jefferson Davis sent a note, ”The congratulations I tender to you and your brave army are felt by the whole country.”
Magruder had once again proven his ability to adapt to circumstances what made him famous. Magruder is buried in Texas.
The port of Galveston was never captured.
“Battle of Galveston Bay,” By Alwyn Barr, 1952, updated 3/29/18, Texas State Historical Society.
The Mariner’s Museum Blog, John V. Quarstein, 10/20/20 https://blog.marinersmuseum.org/2020/10/battle-of-galveston/.
War on the Waters, McPherson, James M., University of North Carolina Press, 2012, p129.