Galveston During the Civil War
|In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, Galveston was the largest
city in Texas and the major seaport for the state. The citys population stood at
7,207, about 1,200 of whom were slaves. Galveston was a growing city; forty percent of her
non-slave population was born outside the United States. Across the islands wharves
in 1860 passed 194,000 bales of cotton, three-quarters of the total shipped from all Texas
ports that year. The editor of the Galveston News
-- perhaps not an entirely objective judge of the matter -- estimated that
Galvestons commerce was growing at the astonishing rate of 50% annually.
The idea of secession did not initially enjoy wide support among
Galvestonians, but it gained popularity after the election of Abraham Lincoln. In a
statewide vote on secession on February 23, 1861, Galvestonians supported breaking with
the Union by a landslide, 765 to 33.
The Federal blockade of Galveston began on
July 2, 1861 with the arrival of U.S.S. South Carolina. The screw-propelled steamer
made several quick captures of sailing vessels trying to break new blockade, but these
were mostly small, worthless craft. Blockade running was, at that stage of the war, a very
amateur and disorganized affair.
Despite the patriotic fervor for the Southern
cause, though, many people came to recognize that Galveston would be difficult to defend
against an expected Union attack. Word got out that the Confederate military thought the
city indefensible, and it was reported that the governor had suggested the city be burned
rather than fall into Union hands intact. Many Galvestonians left the island for
Houston and other cities inland, not to return until 1865.
Federal move on the island was long delayed, but when it finally came in October 1862 it
was almost bloodless. Confederate forces evacuated the city (left) and retreated to the
mainland. Commander Jonathan M. Wainwright, commanding the Navy gunboat Harriet Lane,
took possession of the city and raised the U.S. flag over the old U.S. Customs House.
|In the early hours of New Years Day, 1863, however,
Confederate forces under the command of John Bankhead Magruder launched a bold attack to
recapture the city. Confederate infantry moved into the city under the cover of darkness,
taking advantage of the Federal troops habit of barricading themselves on the
wharves at night, while converted riverboats mounting cannon and piled high with cotton
bales attacked the naval vessels in the harbor. The attack ended with an almost complete
Confederate victory. Harriet Lane and three Union transports were captured; another
gunboat, U.S.S. Westfield, ran aground and was blown up by her own crew to prevent
capture. Wainwright and the senior Union officer, Commander William B. Renshaw, were both
The Federals never tried to
retake Galveston, but reinforced the blockade there in an effort to render it useless as a
seaport. They established a blockade off San Luis Pass, at the western end of Galveston
Island, to capture the small schooners that used that access to Galveston Bay. Blockade
running continued in a small way in 1863, but as before there was little real effort to
resume trade on a large scale. Galveston was geographically too far removed from the
center of the war effort to have much importance for the Confederacy as a whole.
Life in Galveston became increasingly difficult as the war
dragged on. There were shortages of everything -- food, fuel, medicine and clothing -- and
those things that could be found sold for tremendously inflated prices. Flour sold at $2
per pound and eggs at $4 per dozen; coffee could command up to $20 per pound. Rations
issued to the troops were so bad that one regiment put an inedible slab of beef on a
stick, paraded it through the town followed by muffled drums, and after a formal military
funeral, buried it on the public square.
Fences, sheds and abandoned houses were torn down for
firewood. Thefts, assaults and other crime became a common occurrence, as did cases of
desertion from the military units on the island. When the Confederate commander at
Galveston, General James M. Hawes, ordered the military commissary to stop selling flour
to soldiers families, an angry civilian protest led to the so-called "Bread
Riot" of 1864. Hawes re-issued an old and forgotten order declaring Galveston to be
an "entrenched camp," which effectively placed the citizenry subject to martial
law. An epidemic of yellow fever swept through the town in the fall of 1864. Over 100
soldiers, and an unknown number of civilians, died of the disease.
Blockade running began to take on a new significance in
1864. After the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, in which Federal navy effectively
closed the port of Mobile, Galveston was left as one of the few ports left in the
Confederacy and the only one on the Gulf of Mexico. Only a dozen steam blockade runners
had come into Galveston during the first three years of the war; now another runner
entered the port almost every week.
made her first run into Galveston at the end of August 1864; she would make five more
successful round trips into Galveston before being lost in May 1865. Several blockade
runners, including the Laird-built vessels Lark and Wren,
made such regular trips to Galveston that they might have challenged Denbighs
reputation as "the packet."
In 1865, the blockade runner Banshee (II) made a rare daylight
dash through the Union fleet into Galveston, relying more on speed and audacity than the
runners' usual attribute, stealth.
|Despite the excitement caused by the regular arrival and departure
of the blockade runners, conditions continued to deteriorate in Galveston. An attempt at
mass desertion by nearly three hundred Confederate troops was narrowly averted by the
personal intervention of Hawes successor in command of the island, Colonel Ashbel
Smith. The civilian populace was so desperate that on May 24, 1865 -- the same morning Denbigh
was boarded and burned by the Federals -- when the runner Lark
entered the harbor, she was swarmed by an unruly mob that stripped the vessel of
everything of value. A local historian who witnessed the spectacle as a boy later recalled
seeing "stout old women staggering through the streets heavily burdened with sets of
artillery harness and other plunder taken from the vessel." After the crowd finally
dispersed, Larks captain took aboard Denbighs crew and dashed
out to sea again, the last blockade runner to clear a Confederate port.
Much of the above material is derived from Edward T.
Cotham's Battle on the
Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston (Austin: University of Texas Press,