The Fall of Galveston

By the beginning of October, Federal Rear Admiral David G. Farragut’s West Gulf Blockading Squadron had seized various points on the Texas coast, from the Sabine River to Corpus Christi. The most important point was Galveston, which had been under Federal blockade for 15 months. The time had come for the Federals to try to capture this port.

Naval Commander William B. Renshaw confronted Galveston on the morning of October 4 with a gunboat squadron consisting of the U.S.S. Westfield, Harriet Lane, Owasco, Clifton, and the mortar schooner Henry James. The Harriet Lane approached under a white flag, and Renshaw asked to meet with the Confederate commander, Colonel Joseph J. Cook. As Cook was arranging transport into the harbor, the Harriet Lane left and returned with the rest of the squadron. This time, Renshaw did not request a meeting; he demanded surrender.

The Confederates refused and opened fire from the forts defending the town. But the guns were few and ineffective, and the Federal firepower quickly neutralized them. Cook finally agreed to meet with Renshaw aboard the Westfield. Renshaw told Cook that the Federals would not occupy Galveston until the infantry arrived, but in the interim, Renshaw demanded that he be allowed to raise the U.S. flag above the public buildings periodically. This was “accompanied with a threat to burn the place if not complied with.”

Cook refused Renshaw’s demand for immediate and unconditional surrender, arguing that he needed time to evacuate the women and children. Renshaw agreed to give him four days, provided he did not use that time to bolster his defenses. Cook accepted, and when he returned to Galveston, he issued a declaration stating that “railroad cars will be kept running constantly” to take non-combatants out of town, regardless of whether they could afford the fare.

A Federal colonel and 260 men came ashore to begin occupation duty. By the time they arrived, a newspaper reported that “very few of the inhabitants have been left in Galveston.” Most of those who remained were German immigrants who supported the Federals. The Confederates agreed not to use the two-mile-long bridge to move artillery from the mainland onto Galveston Island. Texans resented the fact that Galveston had been given up without a fight, and Brigadier General Paul O. Hebert, commanding the Confederate District of Texas, faced severe criticism for not providing more reinforcement.

Adm David G. Farragut | Image Credit: Wikipedia

With the Federals gaining this foothold in Texas, Alabama was now the only Confederate state that still did not have at least one point under Federal occupation. However, Farragut knew that even though his ships had taken several ports along the coast, they could not hold those points without army support. He wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I have the coast of Texas lined with vessels. If I had a military force I would go down and take every place from the Mississippi River to the Rio Grande.”

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Federal occupation troops in New Orleans, had pledged to give Farragut some men to occupy these ports, but they did not materialize. This led Farragut to inform Renshaw, “I fear that I will find difficulties in procuring the few troops we require to hold the place.”

Meanwhile, the Davis administration, which had not responded to urgent calls for help in reinforcing Galveston, now scrambled to regain the port. Major General John B. Magruder was given command of the Confederate District of Texas, headquartered at Houston. Magruder, who had gained fame by holding off a superior Federal force at Yorktown earlier in the year, soon began planning to liberate Galveston and other coastal points from Federal occupation.


  • Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes. Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889.
  • Delaney, Norman C. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
  • Wert, Jeffry D. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Leave a Reply