When Major General Nathaniel P. Banks took command of the Federal Department of the Gulf in mid-December, he promptly recaptured Baton Rouge and sent three companies of the 42nd Massachusetts to garrison the vital port city of Galveston, Texas. These 250 Federals landed at Kuhn’s Wharf in late December to officially seize the town, but in reality they only occupied the wharf. Their only support consisted of the nearby 32-gun naval fleet under Commander William B. Renshaw.
Meanwhile, Major General John B. Magruder had been working to regain Galveston ever since taking command of the Confederate District of Texas in late 1862. He dispatched about 1,500 troops to the island town after midnight on New Year’s Day, using the unguarded bridge from the mainland. They quietly marched down Strand Street and prepared to attack the Federal garrison near the wharves. The Confederates posted artillery within 300 yards of the Federal ships docked in the harbor.
Meanwhile, Major Leon Smith led a Confederate flotilla of two steamers converted into “cotton-clad” gunboats (the Bayou City and Neptune), and their tenders (the John F. Carr and Lucy Gwin). Texas cavalry commanded by Colonel Thomas Green manned the gunboats. This flotilla advanced into the west end of Galveston Harbor before dawn to attack the Federals.
The Confederate troops in town attacked the Federals but soon found themselves pinned down at the barricades. The U.S.S. Westfield under Renshaw began moving to support the 42nd Massachusetts, but the ship ran aground and sat helpless as the Confederate flotilla approached.
The copper gunboat U.S.S. Harriet Lane (named after President James Buchanan’s niece) sprang into action, led by Commander Jonathan M. Wainwright. The ship rammed the Bayou City with little effect. The Neptune rammed the Harriet Lane but sunk herself from the blow. The Bayou City then rammed the Harriet Lane, locking the two vessels together. The Texans boarded the Federal ship and fought the crewmen hand-to-hand, killing Wainwright and Lieutenant Commander Edward Lea. The Texans forced the ship’s surrender.
From the Westfield, Renshaw ordered Lieutenant Commander Richard L. Law of the nearby U.S.S. Clifton to pull the four remaining Federal ships out to sea to avoid capture. Federals tried to destroy the Westfield before the Confederates could take her, but a magazine aboard the ship exploded prematurely, killing Renshaw and his crew. The Federals on land had held their own against their attackers, but when they saw the carnage in the harbor, they surrendered at Kuhn’s Wharf.
The Confederates captured nearly all the Federals on shore, regaining the town after a four-hour fight. A Confederate wrote, “The victory was won, and a New Year’s gift was made to the people of Texas.” The Federals sustained 414 casualties, along with the loss of the Westfield and Harriet Lane. The other four Federal vessels (the Clifton, Sachem, Corypheus, and Owasco) escaped. The Confederates lost 143 men (26 killed and 117 wounded), along with the Neptune. Magruder reported:
“This morning, the 1st of January, at three o’clock, I attacked the enemy’s fleet and garrison at this place, captured the latter and the steamer Harriet Lane, two barges, and a schooner. The rest, some four or five, escaped ignominiously under cover of a flag of truce. I have about 600 prisoners and a large quantity of valuable stores, arms, etc. The Harriet Lane is very little injured…”
Magruder transferred his headquarters from Houston to Galveston the next day, where he reported to Richmond, “We are preparing to give them a warm reception should they return.” He then issued a proclamation:
“Whereas the undersigned has succeeded in capturing and destroying a portion of the enemy’s fleet and in driving the remainder out of Galveston Harbor and beyond the neighboring waters, and the blockade has thus been raised, he therefore hereby proclaims to all friendly nations, and their merchants are invited to resume their usual commercial intercourse with this Port.”
Meanwhile, General Banks issued orders recalling all Federal troops on transports going from New Orleans to Galveston. This was a great morale booster for the Confederates, as they converted the captured Federal ships into blockade runners; this temporarily broke the Federal blockade along the Texas coast and freed Texas from Federal occupation. The Federals would eventually bolster their blockade enough to force Magruder to abandon Matagorda Bay and Corpus Christi, but Galveston would remain in Confederate hands until the end of the war.
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