Sunday, June 6, 2021

Ships of the Desert


During the early 1800’s, patrolling the vast, arid landscapes of West Texas and the Southwest Territories was difficult at best.  Railroads in the Southwest didn't exist back then.  Unlike the East, the Southwest didn’t have the rivers for steamboats.  To maintain operations at U.S. forts, everything had to be hauled in with mules, wagons and stagecoaches.   Maintaining ample supplies of feed for horses and mules was vital since forage was scarce.  What was needed was a cost effective way, for the U.S. Army, to traverse the Southwest without the gallons of water and sacks of grain needed for horses and mules.  The answer came from across the Atlantic Ocean in the Middle East.

In 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis urged Congress to appropriate money for the purchase of camels to be used in Texas.  After $30,000 was appropriated by Congress, Major H. C. Wayne boarded the navy supply ship USS Supply for a buying trip along the North African and Middle Eastern coasts.  On May 13, 1856, Supply arrived at Indianola, Texas with a cargo of 33 camels, along with 3 Arabs and 2 Turks to handle them.  Since camel saddles were not available or even seen in the United States, Supply brought them along as well.  Wayne lead the first camel caravan from Indianola to Camp Verde in Kerr County, Texas, followed by a second, consisting of 41 camels.  At Camp Verde, he helped train U.S. Army personnel in the use and care of camels, a talent he had acquired during his trip to the Middle East.  The first camel driver hired by the U.S. Army was an Ottoman Turk named Hadji Ali.  Brought over on USS Supply, he became one the first Muslims to set foot in Texas.  Because no one in Texas could properly pronounce his name, much less spell it, he was referred to as “Hi Jolly.”  Ali served with the U.S. Army as a camel driver and later handled mules as well.  He also hauled supplies for miners using camels he had purchased for his own use.  Ali died in 1902 and is buried at Quartzite, Arizona under a stone pyramid topped with a copper camel.    

Among the camels’ duties were carrying supplies during long reconnaissance missions in Southwest Texas, carrying survey equipment across the New Mexico Territory to the California border, and hauling supplies and mail to the U.S. forts.   The camels proved their worth by carrying up to 600 pounds, traveling miles without water, and ate almost any plant protruding from the ground, incuding cactus.  In one remarkable instance, a camel was bitten by a rattlesnake and showed no effects from it.  The problem, however, was their incompatibility with horses and mules – they frightened the hell out of them.   Naturally, mule drivers preferred the more docile, smaller-sized mules over the more ill-tempered camels.   They also emitted a strange, obnoxious odor and would spit on you when angered.  In the end, they just couldn’t fit in with a frontier culture geared around horses, mules, wagons, and livery stables.

The camel experiment went bust during the Civil War.  Those that fell into Confederate hands were used to haul cotton to Brownsville where it was sent across the Mexican border for arms.  One even carried camp equipment for a Confederate Missouri Infantry company.  A camel named “Old Douglas” served with the 43rd Mississippi Infantry.  After the war, those still alive were auctioned off.  Some ended up in traveling circuses.  Eventually they all died off from old age, neglect, slaughter or being left in the wild to roam the Southwest desert.  In 1902, while working cattle in the Arizona desert, a group of cowboys came across a dead camel.  Wrapped around its neck in a poignant embrace was the deceased “Hi Jolly.”        

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Unce Ben's Place

 Benjamin Dowell

In Old El Paso, tempered justice and politics were seldom practiced with a public courtroom and debate hall.  It was often practiced with bare knuckles and revolvers, usually with deadly consequences.  A visitor at the town saloon experienced El Paso justice firsthand by trying to break up a saloon fight.  The saloonkeeper calmly informed him “when you see anything of that kind going on in El Paso, don’t interfere.  It is not considered good manners here.”  Though gentle in manner, the saloonkeeper presented a wise, authoritative figure enhanced by his unusual white hair and long beard.  Affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ben,” Benjamin Dowell brought a rough sense of growth and order to a remote corner of Texas.   


In the late 1840’s, El Paso, Texas was a small, unincorporated community north of the Rio Grande across from El Paso del Norte, now present day Juarez.  Often referred to as Franklin, its most dominate establishment was a collection of white adobe buildings referred to as the Ponce Ranch, established by a wealthy El Paso del Norte merchant, Juan Maria Ponce De Leon.  The living quarters were surrounded by high walls for protection against Indian raids, ocassionally breached when the Indians shot their arrows over the walls.  Among the ranch employees was Ben Dowell, a former U.S. cavalryman who had spent eight months in Mexico City as a prisoner of war.  Conditions were poor at best; the prison diet consisted of tortillas purchased through donations from the prison guards, who were just as poor as the prisoners they guarded.  In his late twenties, he came out of prison with white hair and a fluency in Spanish.  After the Mexican War, he returned to his home state of Kentucky, divorced his wife, and headed for Texas.  In dire need of employment, Dowell got a job at the Ponce Ranch tending the ranch’s vineyards.  He also married, for the second and final time, an illiterate Tigua Indian woman named Juana Marquez.  Stricken with “gold fever,”he headed for California, briefly settling in Los Angeles and working as a carpenter with a fellow West Texan, Bill Ford.  Even by El Paso standards, Los Angeles was too violent to raise a family,  Dowell decided to return to Texas.


In 1850, Dowell opened El Paso’s first saloon in one of the Ponce Ranch buildings. De Leon sold his ranch to a local freighter before Dowell purchased it in 1853.  Like many frontier Texas towns,  Dowell’s Saloon served many functions, such as a billiard hall, post office, grocery store, and courthouse.  High stakes poker was played with silver coins and thousands won or lost in a single hand.   Food was brought to the players if games lasted through the night.  Overseeing it all was Ben Dowell.  


Like all frontier saloons, gunfights were bound to happen.  In 1855, Dowell himself became involved in a shooting.  The theft of $2,300 from the town custom house and a horse from Dowell’s residence brought accusations against William McElroy and three others.  Dowell called out McElroy directly for the theft, something McElroy didn’t take well after he had a few drinks.  In San Elizario, a town southeast of EI Paso, McElroy spilled his intentions to kill Ben Dowell to the town’s saloonkeeper, Bill Ford - Dowell’s California buddy.  Ford sent a message by courier on a swift horse to his friend, warning him of McElroy.  Dowell was ready; he felled McMcElroy with a shotgun blast after the would-be assassin entered his saloon.  Later, another gunslinger was dispatched after taking potshots at El Paso legislator Jeff Hall in front of Dowell’s Saloon.  Armed vigilantes cornered him behind a hotel before showering him with bullets. There were no probations or lengthy jail sentences, law was enforced through the barrel of a gun.


The Civil War brought further disruption.  In 1861, Texas seceded from the Union.  A Confederate flag flew over Dowell’s establishment, leaving no doubt as to which side he supported.  A failed Confederate invasion of New Mexico led to occupation by Union troops, forcing residents to flee to San Antonio or across the river to El Paso del Norte.  The saloon’s fixtures and billiard tables were taken across the river and used in an El Paso del Norte bar. After leaving his family in Mexico, Dowell served as a Confederate recruiting officer in Galveston.


After the war, former Confederates had their property confiscated, forcing them to stroke politicians or seek redress from courts of law to get it back.  In McDowell’s case, it didn’t hurt if those politicians were in the same Masonic order or were friends before the war.  Dowell got his property back while El Paso’s started to grow.  Dowell’s Saloon added two more functions - stagecoach stopover and livery for travelers heading from San Antonio to San Diego, a sort of latter-day Buc-ee’s.   


Unlike the war, the violence never subsided.  Reconstruction politics became the new flashpoint.  Democratic politicians were replaced with Republicans who favored the Union side during the war.  The Republican Party had two factions:  Radicals, who favored a progressive approach, such as equal rights for former slaves, and Conservatives, who favored the opposite.  In 1868, customs collector W. W. Mills, the son-in-law of Texas Governor A. J Hamilton, was El Paso’s Conservative representative at the constitutional convention in Austin.  During his absence, Albert Fountain took over Republican interests in El Paso.   On the local ticket for state senator, Mills ran against the radical Fountain - Mills lost.  With the new office came the power to appoint friends and relatives to judicial and law enforcement posts.  Frank Williams, an El Paso lawyer and friend of Mills, lost his chance at a judgeship when Fountain appointed Gaylord Clarke instead.  To assuage his disappointment, Williams began drinking heavily at Dowell’s Saloon.  In addition, he showed scant respect for the new judge when pleading his cases and vowed vengeance against Fountain and his cronies.  Things only grew worse from there.


On December 6, 1870, while Williams was drinking, Albert Fountain approached him at Dowell’s Saloon to discuss Williams’ less than respectful attitude.  In response, Williams pulled out his pistol and shot Fountain three times, hitting him in the left arm, scalp and almost his heart before the bullet deflected off his pocket watch.  Williams fled to his house to reload while Fountain gathered a posse, Judge Clarke included.  They surrounded Williams’ abode and began breaking in the door.  Williams emerged from the doorway with a double-barreled shotgun, shooting Clarke dead.  Fountain killed Williams with one rifle shot, ending the dispute.


In 1872, El Paso decided it needed a city government.  Ben Dowell was elected its first mayor.  His saloon became the first city hall.  Among the new city’s vexing problems were tax collections, clean water, and stray dogs.  Dowell’s main problem was more of an international one - the Rio Grande.  After a severe flood in 1864, the river changed course, leaving three hundred acres of Mexican land now in the United States.  Mexico wanted that land back. Mayor Dowell felt the matter should be resolved by the United States and Mexico instead of locally.  The matter was not resolved until a century later when President John F. Kennedy and Mexico’s President Adolfo Lopez Mateos agreed to give 630 acres back to Mexico and Mexico would give 193 acres to the United States.  As a result, 5,500 El Pasoans had to move to other parts of the city.            


After being a mayor, Dowell was a county commissioner and city alderman while still tending his bar.  He died unexpectedly in 1880.  The saloon continued operating after his widow leased it out to Frank Manning and his brothers, all well known gunfighters.  El Paso had become a city but it was still under the cloud of its wild frontier past.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Texas Pirate


Jean Lafitte

Pirates are generally not associated with the cowboy-laden culture of Texas.  Pirate icons such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan got their fame in the Caribbean Islands at the expense of Spain and her New World colonies.  Texas, during the “Golden Age of Piracy,” was a frontier Spanish colony with little to offer a pirate crew.  Rum, gold and loose women were severely lacking.  The inhabitants were mostly rattlesnakes and the Karankawas, an indigenous tribe of hunters and gatherers that practiced ritual cannibalism.  For a few years in the early 1800’s, however, the Texas port of Galveston was a pirate base - the home of notorious pirate Jean Lafitte. 

Little is known about Lafitte’s youth.  He was likely born in 1782 in France before immigrating to Saint Domingue (now Haiti) then New Orleans.  He and his brother Pierre attended a military academy on the French island of Saint Kitts.  A few years later, they were brokers for privateers and smugglers on the Louisiana island of Barataria, 23 miles south of New Orleans.  Lafitte was not your basic slovenly, hard-drinking pirate; he was more like a mob boss.  He enjoyed gambling, attractive women, fine dining, and fashionable attire.  He was also well educated and spoke three languages. 

In the 1790’s, Louisiana was a French colony peopled with a diverse mix of Spaniards, French, Creoles, and free blacks.  New Orleans relied heavily on trade with the Caribbean Islands.  That all changed with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  France’s Emperor Napoleon, strapped for cash, sold Louisiana to the United States for $15 million.  Because of its war with France, U.S. merchant ships were often seized on the open seas by British warships, impressing their crews for service in the British Navy.  In retaliation, the United States passed the Embargo Act of 1807 that barred American ships from anchoring at any foreign port and placed an embargo on goods imported into the United States.  New Orleans merchants needed a new source for goods and merchandise.  Jean and Pierre made a fortune smuggling goods and slaves into New Orleans with their pirate fleet, some of which were captured Spanish schooners.  Goods and slaves were seized on the high seas, brought into Barataria, and then purchased or auctioned off in New Orleans.   Slaves were in huge demand, but the slave trade had been outlawed in the United States, making slave ships beckoning targets. 

The Lafitte brothers operated as privateers, legally authorized pirates through letters of marque issued by foreign governments.  In the Lafittes’ case, the letter of marque was from the Port of Cartagena in Columbia, though none of the Lafitte’s pirated goods ever made it there.  Most privateers held multiple letters of marque like a person today would have multiple credit cards, giving them wide leverage in pirating merchant vessels.  By 1810, Barataria was becoming a booming port for smugglers, pirates and privateers, practically a separate nation within the United States - a separate pirate nation.  Louisiana’s new territorial governor greatly resented the Lafittes’ privateering operations, which paid no import taxes and whose well-paid, experienced sailors could cause problems for the fledgling U.S. Navy.  Commodore Daniel T. Patterson, commander of the U.S. naval squadron in the gulf and once a prisoner of the Barbary pirates, wrote, the smugglers “should they not be soon destroyed, it will be extremely hazardous for an unarmed vessel even American to approach the coast.”  During November, 1812, a detachment of 60 U.S. troops invaded Barataria and arrested the Lafitte brothers.  The brothers posted bond before disappearing and then not showing up for their trial.  Louisiana Governor William C. Claiborne posted a $500 reward for the arrest of Pierre and Jean.  The Lafittes, in turn, posted a reward for the arrest of Governor Claiborne.   The Louisiana legislature, whose constituents benefitted from smuggling, refused to assemble a militia to suppress Barataria’s privateers. 

In September, 1814, Patterson launched a second attack on Barataria with a small fleet of seven warships, scattering the privateers and capturing ten of Lafitte’s ships.  Despite Patterson’s success, Claiborne had a bigger problem two months later - the British Navy.  The United States had declared war on Great Britain in June, 1812 over the seizure of its vessels and the arming of hostile Indian tribes resisting westward expansion.  Two years later, the British sacked Washington DC.  By the end of 1814, the British had arrived in the Gulf and requested a meeting with Jean Lafitte.  Meeting at his Baratarian home, they offered him and his fellow privateers land grants and British citizenship if he would support them.  Despite its military setbacks, Lafitte felt the U.S. would eventually win out.  He offered his support to Major General Andrew Jackson.  Lafitte provided guns, ammo and men to Jackson during the Battle of New Orleans.  For his support, Lafitte received a full pardon.  Nevertheless, Lafitte renewed his privateering after the battle while also serving as a Spanish agent during Mexico’s revolt against Spain.  

Pressure from the U.S. forced Lafitte to seek another base.  In 1817, he established his new base at Galveston, giving it the name “Campeche.”  Lafitte had seized the island from another privateer, Louis Michel Aury.  He also built himself a house he named Maison Rouge (Red House).  Eventually, 1,000 people settled there, mostly men.  The better armed settlers held off the Karankawas, but could do little about the weather.  A hurricane swept over the low-lying island in 1817, destroying most of Lafitte’s fleet. 

Jim Bowie, the future knife-wielding, Texas revolutionary, formed a partnership with Lafitte over pirated slaves.  Lafitte brought them ashore before selling them to Bowie; who tipped off U.S. customs officials in New Orleans where they could be found.  In return, Bowie received a bounty and the chance to bid for them at auction.  Bolstered with his bounty money, he outbid his competitors at the auction.  The slaves were, in essence, being laundered like drug money.  Slaves were in high demand in the Mississippi’s Delta Region and planters paid Bowie top dollar for his slaves. 

After the seizure of a U.S. merchant vessel, Lafitte was forced to leave again, this time for the Yucatan Region of Mexico.  He became ill and then returned to Barataria to die. The burning of “Campeche” by Lafitte and natural erosion have left no remains on Galveston Island.  A Texas historical marker stands where Lafitte supposedly lived but the concrete foundations are actually from a house erected years later after Lafitte left.  Lafitte gained renewed prominence with the popularity of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  A theater for tourists, on Galveston’s Pier 21, presents a film entitled The Pirate Island of Jean Lafitte and a museum on the Strand, “Pirates ! Legends of the Gulf Coast,” that has a replica pirate ship and chronicles the life of Lafitte. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Rebel Raider off the Texas Coast


                                   Captain Raphael Semmes on board the CSS Alabama

In January, 1863, less than two weeks after Confederate forces recaptured Galveston, a squadron of five Union warships arrived at the entrance to Galveston Bay.   Their purpose was to reestablish the Union naval blockade, driven off a few days earlier by Texas troops under the command of Major General John B. Magruder.  Venting their wrath over the loss of Texas’ largest city, the Union vessels began lobbing shells into Galveston.  Commodore Henry H. Bell’s attention was diverted to a distant ship on the horizon.  Rumors swirled of a new Confederate warship plying the Atlantic Ocean, but she was too far east to be a threat.  Nevertheless, the ship might be a Confederate vessel.  Bell ordered the side paddlewheel steamer, USS Hatteras, to chase down the mystery ship. 

Prior to the Civil War, the 210-foot Hatteras had served as a passenger steamer on the Delaware River.  In desperate need of steam vessels to chase down blockade runners, the U.S. Navy purchased every seaworthy steamboat available, mostly passenger and ferry boats.  Hatteras possessed an iron deck, making her ideal for supporting large naval guns.   Because of the paddle wheels, she was limited in the number of guns she could carry.  Four 32-pound shell guns, two 20-pound rifled guns, and a 12-pound howitzer were installed.  The added weight, however, decreased her speed to 7 knots.  A crew of 126 men and officers was assigned to the converted gunboat under the command of Commander George Foster Emmons.  Hatteras was dispatched to the South Atlantic Blockade Squadron to patrol the coast of West Florida.  Despite its slow pace, Hatteras managed to capture 14 blockade runners; seven of which were captured during an evening raid on Cedar Keys, Florida.  She was later assigned to the Western Gulf Coast Blockade Squadron, patrolling the waters off Louisiana and Texas.  Emmons was replaced by Commander Homer C. Blake; who had performed a geographical survey of the Texas coast before the war.  

Hatteras steamed toward the mystery ship at top speed, but was moving too far from the support of her squadron.  The mystery ship’s commander counted on it, keeping her just slow enough to entice a chase.  Twenty miles from the Texas coast, he suddenly turned about and steamed toward Hatteras.  The evening darkness hampered identification, except for the presence of a British flag flying from her aft mast.  Within 70 yards, Blake called out to the ship to stop and identify herself.  “What ship are you?”  The mystery ship replied, “Her Britannic Majesty Ship Petrel!”  Not convinced of her neutral nation identity, Blake shouted back that he was sending a boat over.  Before the boat could depart, Petral turned her broadside to directly face Hatteras.  The British flag was lowered and replaced with the flag of the Confederate States of America.  A second identity was shouted out.  “This is the Confederate States Steamer Alabama - Fire!  Blake was now locked into a duel with the Confederacy’s deadliest warship.

The steam cruiser CSS Alabama was British-built under the discrete direction of Confederate Agent Commander James Bulloch.  According to Great Britain’s neutrality laws, vessels could be constructed for foreign powers at war provided they were not armed.  That didn’t mean they couldn’t be armed outside British territory.  Upon completion, Alabama sailed for the Azores Islands off the Portuguese coast.  Eight 32-pound smoothbore guns, one 8-inch smoothbore pivot gun and a ship-killing 110-pound Blakely pivot gun were brought aboard.  To save fuel and reduce drag, the cruiser’s screw, or propeller, could be raised, enabling her to be solely propelled by sail.  Lured by pay in gold coin that was double their normal salaries and booty from captured ships, the crew was recruited from British ships.  The officers were Southerners.   The cruiser was placed under the command of Captain Raphael Semmes, who had previously commanded the steam cruiser CSS Sumter.   Before Alabama entered the Gulf of Mexico, she had seized 26 vessels.  Twenty-two were burned after any useful items were confiscated.  The rest were bonded to send prisoners home or had foreign registry.  Confederate agents and captured newspapers kept Semmes apprised of any opportunities.  Cruising off Santo Domingo, a Boston newspaper informed Semmes of a planned coastal invasion of Texas by Major General Nathaniel Banks, requiring over twenty transport vessels.  Although Alabama’s main purpose was to sink Union merchant vessels, Semmes couldn’t resist an opportunity to attack Union troop ships.  The invasion was thwarted when Confederate troops liberated Galveston, capturing a Union regiment and driving off Union blockaders in the process.  On January 11, 1863, off the Galveston coast, Alabama’s’ lookout yelled out, “Land ho! Sail ho!”  He counted five warships, but no transports.  It became apparent that Galveston had been recaptured when they fired their guns on the Texas port.  One of the warships, USS Hatteras, approached.  Semmes ordered Alabama to steam west, luring Hatteras away from the coast. 

Hatteras’ Executive Officer Henry O. Porter told Blake, “That, sir, I think is the Alabama.  What shall we do?”  Blake replied calmly, “If that is the Alabama we must fight her.”  A tremendous broadside from Alabama crashed into Hatteras’ hull.  Porter shouted out, “Alabama, boys give it to her.”  The firepower of the Confederate raider was too much.  Semmes later recalled his men had “handled their pieces with great spirit and commendable coolness.”  One shot hit the port paddlewheel, forcing portions of the wheel into her hull.  Another shot hit the steam chest, disabling the engine and sending out a cloud of scalding steam.  Hatteras was now dead in the water.  A shot from Alabama’s 110-pound Blakely ripped into Hatteras’ sick bay, setting bottles of turpentine on fire.  The fire spread throughout the ship, threatening the powder magazine.  An alert African-American steward desperately began drowning the gunpowder in the rising seawater to keep it from exploding.  Alabama’s guns punched gaping holes into Hatteras’ hull below the waterline.  Water poured through, forcing Hatteras to list on her side.  Blake ordered a canon fired to signal surrender.  The battle was over in thirteen minutes.

Alabama ceased fire and sent out her boats to rescue Hatteras’ crew.  Semmes set course to Jamaica to refuel and drop off his prisoners; a task made difficult because the number of prisoners equaled the number of crew members.  Semmes men had to sleep on their arms.  Later that evening, the Union warship USS Brooklyn arrived at the site of the battle.  Submerged in 8 feet of water, only the top of Hatteras’ masts protruded from the surface.  Her commission flag was still flying - clear evidence Hatteras had fought honorably.   Hatteras was the only warship Alabama had sunk until her fateful duel off the French coast with the USS Kearsarge.  The sinking of Hatteras, along with Galveston’s recapture, helped keep one of the few Confederate ports in Confederate hands until the end of the war.


Sunday, October 4, 2020

Santa Anna's Army

                                        Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna


The Texas Revolution is mostly known for the courageous deeds of Texas settlers resisting an autocratic Mexican government.  Less is known about the Mexican army they fought.  Collectively designated the “Mexican Army of Operations,” the 6,019 Mexican troops proved a tougher foe than most Texans originally thought.  With minimal food and water, they marched hundreds of miles in desert-like conditions through a territory plagued with hostile Native Americans and one of the worst winters to ever hit Northern Mexico.  In the end, incompetent leadership, politics, and poor logistical support led to the Army of Operations’ defeat.


The Mexican Army’s roots lie with its former colonial master, Spain.  After Mexico gained its independence, its army simply kept the tactics of their Spanish forebears.  During the 1830’s, Mexico’s military manuals were exact copies of Spanish manuals that were already dated in 1815.  Innovation was slow in coming, especially in a country where politics could change on a dime.  To make matters worse, government officials were often rife with corruption and shifted their loyalties according to the dictates of their status and income.  The two competing political parties in Mexico were the Centralists, who favored a strong, central government and Federalists, who favored strong, local state governments over the central government in Mexico City.  Straddling this political divide was Mexico’s charismatic leader, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.


Elected president in 1833, Santa Anna promised democratic reforms.  Instead, he reneged on those promises, establishing a more autocratic, central government instead.  Those who resisted were subject to arrest, imprisonment and execution.  A revolt by the Mexican state of Zacatecas was ruthlessly put down followed by 48 hours of pillaging that appalled the international community.  Texas colonists resisted as well, driving Mexican troops out of San Antonio and securing the city’s one fortified position - The Alamo.  Santa Anna was incensed by the Texans effrontery to his government, deciding to make an example of them.  To do so would require an army of several thousand that would have to be augmented by conscripts often forced to volunteer at gunpoint.   One of Santa Anna’s officers and one of his fiercest critics, Colonel Jose Enrique de la Pena, wrote The Army of Operations was “created by bayonets and now had to be upheld by them.” 


Santa Anna’s tactics were based primarily on his hero - Napoleon Bonaparte.  His officers knew that a thorough knowledge of Napoleon’s tactics was a fast tract toward advancement.  He referred to himself as the “The Napoleon of the West” with little regard for innovative tactics and methods outside the French emperor’s dogma.  Santa Anna’s second in command, the Italian-born General Vicente Filial wrote that Santa Anna would “listen to nothing which was not in accord with Napoleon’s ideas.” 


The Mexican Army consisted of three branches:


1.    The Permanent Troops - regular army infantry and cavalry troops on active duty.

2.    The Active Militia (Milicia Activa) - active, or partialy, active duty militia that included infantry and cavalry units.

3.    The Civic Militia (Milicia Civica) - reserve militia where any male between 18 and 40 could voluntarily enlist or be conscripted by force if necessary.  Used primarily for local police duties or national emergencies.


One branch of service that was sorely lacking in Mexico’s wars with Texas and later, the United States, was the Navy.  With a navy, large numbers of troops could have been dispersed on the Texas coast with greater ease than marching them hundreds of miles over difficult terrain.  In addition, it would have deprived Texas of its coastal ports, vital entry points for supplies and volunteers from the United States.


Since Mexico had no arms manufacturers, the infantry was armed with imported four foot long, British-made Brown Bess muskets.  The powder flash from the Brown Bess could burn the face of its user, forcing him to shut his eyes while firing.  A residue of gunpowder built up in the barrel that affected the musket’s firing, requiring frequent cleaning.  In some instances, the blockage was removed by simply urinating into the barrel.  To compensate for the musket’s inaccuracy, troops had to fire in concentrated volleys to hit their target, leaving thick clouds of smoke on the battlefield.  The bullet was a massive .753 caliber ball that could knock a man right off his feet.  A bayonet was affixed to its long barrel, making it an effective spear in close combat.   The cavalry was armed with British-made swords, single shot pistols and that most feared of Mexican weaponry, the lance. 


           Uniforms varied in color, especially during the period of Santa Anna.  The standard uniform of a Permanent infantryman included white pants and a blue jacket with red piping and a red collar with the regiment number on the collar.  White sashes and a white belt supported an ammunition pouch and bayonet holder.   Topping it off was a conical, visored shako adorned with a red plume and a brass plate of Mexico’s national symbol.  Some units wore all white pants and jackets, more suitable for the warmer summer months.  The cavalry wore red jackets with green breasts and collars.  Headgear was a metal helmet or wide-brimmed, white-banned hat.  Assisting the cavalry were state militias and rancheros from the Northern Mexico states.


Through the Catholic Church and private money lenders, Santa Anna financed and then assembled his army at San Luis Potosi in December 1865.  They began their march to San Antonio that same month. Napoleon was quoted as saying “an army marches on its stomach.”  Santa Anna seemed to have little regard for the stomachs of his own army.  Each man carried only one month of rations.  Food caches were established in advance of Santa Anna’s march but they often fell prey to marauding Comanches.  Forage parties and state government provisions had to make up for any food deficits.  Enlisted men were generally poor Indian peasants who were badly uniformed, ill fed and physically abused by officers who embezzled their pay.  Many could not speak Spanish and were more use to the jungle climate of Southern Mexico’s Yucatan Region than the desert regions of Northern Mexico.  The Army of Operations did not have an effective quartermaster corps nor a medical corps.  Instead, the families of the soldiers accompanied them on the march, providing food, medical attention and comfort along the way.  Referred to as Soldaderas, they became an increasing burden as Santa Anna marched north.  The doctors that were on hand were incompetent to the point of being outright “Quacks.”  Despite the doctors’ best efforts, hundreds died of disease and exposure as winter arrived in Northern Mexico.  A blizzard in 1836 dropped over a foot of snow on the line of march, subjecting many to frostbite.  Dead animals, discarded equipment, and broken down wagons lined the march.


To transport their supplies, the Army of Operations relied on a train of two-wheeled carts pulled by oxen and the sturdy backs of pack mules.  The skills needed to drive mules made the mule drivers indispensable for Santa Anna’s march.  They had to be paid or else they would leave, taking their mules with them.  To add to the transport problem were the Comanches, who stole from the Mexicans’ horse and cattle herds.   The problem forced Santa Anna to dispatch a division to go after the Comanches.  Straggling soldiers faced an increased risk of being killed and scalped by Indians.


Despite the overwhelming hardships, Santa Anna’s troops accomplished their march and inflicted defeats on the Texans at The Alamo and Goliad.  Santa Anna enjoyed superior numbers, but made a fateful decision after capturing San Antonio - he divided his army.  The decision cost him at San Jacinto and forced his troops to retreat back to Mexico.  Nevertheless, the Mexican soldier proved a stalwart opponent dedicated to his country and supportive of its efforts to suppress revolting Texans.   

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Astounding Victory: The Davis Guard at Sabine Pass

                                                 Lt. Richard W. "Dick" Dowling

The Civil War produced a number of unlikely heroes on both sides.  One of the most unlikely was a twenty-five year old, auburn-haired Houston bartender with an engaging personality and a talent for artillery.   Like many of his fellow Irish immigrants, Richard W. “Dick” Dowling arrived in the United States with empty pockets and a burning ambition.  With just a sibling for a companion, he sought his fortune in Houston.  Luckily, he married a girl from a prominent Irish Houston family, Annie Odlum.  Annie’s father was Benjamin Odlum, a veteran of the Texas Revolution who held extensive land grants.  Dowling’s marriage helped raise him socially and financially within Houston’s growing Irish community.  His dashing looks and well-honed social graces made him a natural in the hospitality industry.  “The Shades,” the first bar he opened, was a big success.  In 1860, he sold it and opened “The Bank of Bacchus” directly across from the Harris County courthouse.  Houston lawyers and businessmen flocked to “The Bank,” enabling Dowling to start a bathing saloon and liquor importing business.  In his spare time, he created a very popular cocktail drink, “The Kiss Me Quick and Go.”  The recipe and origin of its curious name is not known.  In addition to providing drinks and billiards, “The Bank” served as a meeting hall for various military, political and social organizations, most notably the “Davis Guard” named after Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  The “Davies,” as they were called, were mostly Irish dockworkers with a penchant for fisticuffs, especially after they had a few.  One observer recalled, “They were men of mature years-very few were young-men of brawn and muscle, quiet in manner if treated right, but woe be to you if you offended one of them, you would hear from him in true Irish style.”

President Lincoln kept a wary eye on Texas and wanted an immediate Union presence in the Lone Star State.   The main reason was the worrisome presence of French troops in Mexico, who may decide to align Mexico with the Confederacy or reclaim territory lost during the Mexican War.  In addition, New England textile mills wanted to get their hands on East Texas cotton fields.  Lincoln stated to General Ulysses S. Grant, “I am greatly impressed with the importance of re-establishing the national authority in Western Texas as soon as possible.”  Based in New Orleans, Major General Nathaniel Banks dispatched an armada of four shallow draft gunboats and transport steamers filled with 4,000 troops to land ashore near Fort Griffin.  Under the command of General William B. Franklin, Union troops would capture the fort, cut off the rail line to Beaumont, and then proceed west to capture Houston and Galveston.

Numbering forty-seven men, the Guards were designated Company F, Texas Heavy Artillery.  Dick Dowling was commissioned the company’s lieutenant.  Far from the fighting east of the Sabine, they used their time drilling for any coastal incursions likely to come.  In time they became the best drilled heavy artillery unit in the Confederate Army.  Dowling and his men were assigned to an earthen fort of six guns named Fort Griffin near Sabine City, located at the mouth of the Sabine River.  Reinforced with railroad iron, the fort was ingeniously designed to provide a wide range of fire from the mouth of the river to just offshore from the fort, a 90 degree angle of deadly firepower.  Distance poles or markers were hammered into the river bottom to sight the guns.  One the eve of battle, Dowling told his men, “The Yankees are going to attack us and while I am personally in favor of sticking here and giving them a hot reception, I don’t feel like taking the responsibility of having you all killed or captured, so leave we shall do to you.”  One of the Guards replied, “Oh hell, Lieutenant, I’d rather fight than walk to Sabine City.”  Dowling enthusiastically responded, “That settles it. We’ll fight!”

At On September 8, 1863, at 3:40 PM, the Union gunboat fleet entered the Sabine River and began shelling Fort Griffin, the Guards stayed behind the fort’s walls until the gunboats came closer.  The gunboat fleet consisted of a former Staten Island ferry boat, U. S. S. Clifton, the propeller driven steamer, U. S. S. Sachem, and two captured blockade runners, U. S. S. Arizona and U. S. S. Granite City.  Upon reaching the distance markers, the Sachem received a brutal pounding.  A well placed shot took out her boiler, leaving her, and much the crew, dead in the water.  The Clifton received the same treatment.  A shot took out her tiller ropes, leaving her without the ability to steer.  The well-drilled Guards fired one hundred seven times in thirty minutes - approximately one shot fired in just slightly over a minute.  Both vessels ran aground and were forced to surrender.  The Arizona and Granite City turned around the left the river.  Without gunboat protection, Franklin and his troops were was forced to retreat back to New Orleans in disgrace.  In a remarkable turn of events, a Union invasion force was bested by a Texas bartender and forty-seven Irish dockworkers.  Without suffering a single casualty, the Guards captured two shot up gunboats and three hundred prisoners. 

The Davis Guard became overnight heroes of the Confederacy, especially in the wake of Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg the previous summer.  Major General John Bankhead Magruder, the Commander of the Department of Texas, visited Fort Griffin shortly after the battle to personally extend his congratulations.  Each guard member received a medal made out of a stamped Mexican coin and supported by a green ribbon; the only medals awarded to Confederate troops during the Civil War.  

After the war, Dowling returned to Houston and “The Bank.”  The “Hero of Sabine Pass” became a local celebrity, drawing hundreds of customers to his establishment.  Union occupation soldiers flocked to “The Bank” to catch a glimpse of the legendary Dowling.  One Union officer jokingly paid Dowling for his drink with a captured Confederate bill.  Without hesitation, Dowling accepted it and even gave the officer change.  Dowling also engaged in numerous charitable activities in the Houston area.  Unfortunately, he fell victim to a yellow fever epidemic in 1867.  Before his untimely death at 29, he opened "The Bank" to suffering yellow fever victims, converting it into a hospital.

Today, the site of the Battle of Sabine Pass is memorialized with a stirring monument and historical markers outlining the battle.  The City of Sabine Pass was incorporated decades ago into present day Port Arthur.  No trace of the fort remains today.  A statue was erected in 1905 at Houston’s Hermann Park to honor Dowling but was recently removed, crated and stored in a Houston warehouse.   Port Arthur refuses to let the statue be relocated to the battlefield site.  Unless it’s sold to the highest bidder at auction, placed in a cemetery, or dispatched to a museum willing to accept it, don’t expect it to surface anytime soon. 

Out of sight, out of mind, so goes Texas history.     

Check out Edward T. Cotham Jr.’s fine book, “Sabine Pass, The Confederacy’s Thermopylae"

                                      Houston's Dowling Statue Before Removal

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Boone's Redemption

Major Hannibal H. Boone

Acting Master Thomas Lombard Peterson beheld a curious sight as he docked his gunboat, U. S. S. Diana.  A squad of Confederate cavalry, under a flag of truce, had escorted two women to be ferried across Berwick Bay into Union held territory.  The gunboat would be their transport.  In the past, Peterson’s encounters with Confederate troops had been at a comfortable distance, especially after he shelled them along the river bank.  Led by Major Hannibal H. Boone, this group of rebels appeared different - a hard-looking bunch dressed in nondescript, homespun uniforms and wide-brimmed hats adorned with single stars.  Their weapons consisted of shotguns, carbines, Colt revolvers and oversized Bowie knives.  They stared at him like hungry coyotes on a lame jackrabbit.  Unmoved at their presence, a brash Peterson couldn’t resist a verbal exchange.


“I have been under the impression, that when a man put on a military uniform, and donned the garb of a soldier, he intended to fight,” he stated.


Boone replied, “I have thought it that way myself.”


Peterson continued,”You Confederates don’t practice that.  I’ve been over several times to try you, but at the bursting of the first shell you all stampeded.”


Unimpressed, Boone asserted, “You have never stampeded me or my men yet.”


“You are a new man then, just come in?” Peterson inquired.


“Yes sir!  I have just come in today,” Boone answered.


Peterson continued badgering the major.  “Well, you mean to say that you are something better than you’ve had there before?”


“No sir, I mean to say nothing of the sort.  But I’ll tell you what I mean, and that is that you can’t stampede my men with one shell-nor a dozen shells-only that and nothing more,”  Boone quipped.


Peterson took the women on board, telling one of his officers he would “return soon and see if they fought as well as they talked.”


Overhearing him, the Major Boone shot back, “Come ahead! We’ll try and interest you.”


The Confederates returned to their camp, no doubt eager to face Patterson again on his return.      This time, the Union skipper would face a tougher foe eager for redemption.


In 1862, the 13th Texas Cavalry Battalion was organized by Colonel Edwin Waller upon his return from the New Mexico Campaign.  Still under Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley’s inept command, Waller followed him to the bayous of South Louisiana.  The 13th’s arrival did not get off to a glorious start.  At Bonnet Carre, on the Mississippi River, near New Orleans, seven regiments of Union troops, on four steamboats, trapped the Texans on three sides.  Their only escape was through a near impregnable swamp by foot, not horseback.  Humiliation ensued when Waller’s men were forced to abandon their horses and saddles to ecstatic Yankees or kill their mounts outright by slashing their throats.   After slogging miles through bayou country, Waller reassembled his men, now referred to as the “Cane Cart Cavalry” by their jeering Louisiana comrades. 


During Mid-March, 1863, Union forces, under Major General Nathaniel Banks, had firm control over New Orleans and its surrounding suburbs.  Located in the Lafourche District, on the Atchafalaya River, Brashear City (now present day Morgan City) was their furthest, northwest point of occupation.  Union troops, under German-born Brigadier General Godfrey Weitzel, kept a wary eye on rebel cavalry patrolling outside his lines.  In addition to his troops, Weitzel had the help of steam-powered gunboats that patrolled Berwick Bay, Grand Lake, and the lower portions of the Atchafalaya River.   The gunboats’ large guns and menacing appearance had a terrifying effect on Confederate troops, who often fled instead of directly confronting them.  The Confederate Commander of Western Louisiana, Major General Richard Taylor, was contemptuous toward the gunboats, calling their actions “snipe-hunting with twelve-pounders.”   Anxious to launch offensive operations, with the ultimate goal of retaking New Orleans, he was dismayed at the fear his Louisiana cavalry had toward the gunboats.  Taylor wanted them captured and added to his small flotilla gathering on Grand Lake and Bayou Teche.  “When gunboats come up those small rivers,” he told his troops, “instead of running off, capture them!”  Writing to his cavalry officers, Taylor further stated, “If you cannot do it, I will send men who can.”  The men he sent were the 13th Texas Cavalry.  


Like many Union gunboats, the Diana was a former Confederate merchant steamer captured and then converted into a gunboat and transport for the Union Army.  Partially armored, the side-wheeler was useful in patrolling Louisiana’s narrow bayous and meandering rivers.  Like the other half dozen gunboats patrolling the Louisiana bayous, the Diana went beyond protecting Union troops and taking on Confederate vessels.  Using barges towed from his stern, Peterson would also relieve plantations of their sugar cane.  Like cotton, sugar was in big demand.  Money received for confiscated crops were divided between the Diana’s officers and sailors. 


Major Boone and his Texans watched the comings and goings of the Diana; they decided to lay a trap.  Anxious to take on the Texans, Peterson decided to depart from his normal patrol route by steaming up the Atchafalaya toward Pattersonville.  Sixty-nine volunteer, infantry sharpshooters were on board to provide additional firepower.  They would soon wish they stayed at their camp 


Twenty-nine year old, Tennessee native, Hannibal Honestus Boone, was a lawyer in Hempstead before the war.  He rose to the rank of major and became Waller’s second in command.  In time, Boone became a feared cavalryman, best avoided in a direct fight.  With the assistance of Texas’ famed Val Verde Battery and the Arizona Cavalry Battalion, Boone arrayed 300 men on both sides of the river hidden in the vegetation.  All were crack shots.  


The Diana never had a chance.  Cannon, rifle, and pistol fire riddled the gunboat, killing or wounding a quarter of the 120 men onboard.  Peterson was shot dead through the heart.  Damaged from the gunfire, the Diana could not escape.  After striking her colors, joyous Texans swam over to claim their prize.  They recoiled in horror upon seeing the blood and gore spattered across the deck and walls.  “Every berth was cut to splinters,” wrote a Union survivor.  “Chairs, tables, knives and forks, books, broken glass and china, shattered panels, blood-wet beds, and pools of gore-and the dead and wounded-were everywhere.”  Even six-shooters were used with great effect,” reported a Texas captain.


The 13th had their redemption and a gunboat for Taylor’s small flotilla.  The Diana served the Confederate side at the battles of Bisland and Irish Bend.  Running out of navigable waterways, before an advancing Union army, she was scuttled a month after her capture.