Sunday, January 19, 2014

Texas' First Naval Victory

Republic of Texas Schooner
Stephen F. Austin enjoyed the ocean breeze.  After eighteen years in Mexican prisons for suspicion of treason,  it felt good to be out.  The emprasario of the largest colony in Texas had made his way from Mexico City to New Orleans. From there, the schooner San Felipe would take him down the gulf coast to the Texas port of Velasco.  As the port came into view, any anticipated homecomings were cut short; a Mexican warship appeared on the horizon.     
During Austin's absence, Mexico's Centralist government, led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, decided to reign in its remote colony with taxes, import duties and armed troops.  Texas colonists greatly resented this sudden intrusion.  For years, they had lived tax free, courtesy of a distracted Mexican government beset with internal discord.  To enforce the collection of import duties along the Texas coast, Mexico dispatched an ill-tempered, hard drinking navy lieutenant with few endearing qualities, Thomas "Mexico" Thompson. 
Prior to joining the Mexican navy, the English born Thompson was a down and out merchant captain looking for a second chance.  That second chance would come from extorting Texas merchant vessels at the helm of his warship Correo Mejicano.  Texans saw him for what he really was, a mere pirate in the guise of a Mexican naval officer.  Thompson, on the other hand, despised those  ungrateful Yankee Texans who refused to support their government.  The fuse was lit.
On September 1, 1835,  Thompson attempted to seize the merchant vessel Tremont, anchored just off  the coast near Velasco.  Suspecting the Tremont of smuggling illegal goods , he sent over a marine detachment in rowboats to take possession. In a boiling rage, the ship's owner, Thomas McKinney, watched the seizure unfold from ashore.  He decided to take matters into his own hands.  Accompanied by thirty armed volunteers, he boarded the steamboat Laura and steamed out to the Tremont.  Pulling alongside the seized vessel, McKinney's men opened fire with their muskets on the marines.  Fleeing for their lives, Thompson's men jumped back into their rowboats and paddled back to the Correo. 
As he approached Velasco, the swashbuckling skipper of the San Felipe, Captain William Hurd, armed the two 12 pound cannons he had on board.  Each despising the other, Thompson and Hurd had been looking for each other for weeks.  Both boasted they would capture or summarily execute the other.  Now they would get their chance.    
After securing the Tremont, the Laura steamed out to the San Felipe.  Seeing the "Father of Texas" on board was a huge morale booster for McKinney and his volunteers.  The Laura towed the San Felipe back to Velasco where Austin and his fellow passengers disembarked.  Hurd and 20 volunteers boarded the San Felipe.  It was time to settle up with "Mexico" Thompson; they were going after him. 
Hurd pulled up alongside the Correo as the evening darkness approached.  Thompson called out to the  Texans with his bullhorn, "Let go your anchors, you damned Yankees!"  Instead the Texans let go with their cannons and muskets.  For forty five minutes, the Correo and San Felipe traded shots in the darkness.  The lack of wind led to a thick cloud of gun smoke that shrouded the opposing vessels.  Screams of the wounded mingled with the thunder of the cannons.  Thompson was wounded in the thighs and one of his cannons was dismounted; the Correo seemed to have gotten the worst of it.  Only the smoky darkness prevented his ship from being boarded.
Since he couldn't find the Correo in the dark, Hurd decided to return to Velasco and resume the chase in the morning.  Thompson also decided to withdraw but was in hostile waters.  He would have to hope for a steady wind to fill his sails and propel the Correo to Matamoros.  By morning, he had made little headway; Velasco was still in sight and the San Felipe was being remanned and rearmed.  To make matters worse, she would be towed by the steamboat Laura and wouldn't need sails to reach her target.
To Thompson's utter horror, he watched the Laura and the freshly armed San Felipe slowly coming toward him.  Low on ammunition, manpower and wind, he decided to surrender.  Along with five of his men, he was placed in irons on his own ship.  The rest of his crew, including the marines, were sent ashore.  The Texans helped themselves to the Correo's small arms and army payroll.  Accompanied by the San Felipe, Hurd ran up an American flag on the captured vessel and set sail for New Orleans
Since Texas, a Mexican colony, didn't have an admiralty court, Captain Hurd sought justice in a United States admiralty court.  Upon arrival, he claimed that Thompson was committing piracy against the San Felipe, a U.S. registered vessel.  Thompson and his men were thrown into the county jail to await trial in a district court.   The Mexican Consulate protested that Thompson was a commissioned Mexican officer and couldn't be jailed for enforcing Mexican laws.  Thompson, however, didn't have his signed paper commission with him for proof.  
The trial became a sensation when New Orleans' most prominent attorneys represented the opposing parties.  District Attorney Henry Carleton, a former U.S. infantry lieutenant that fought in the Battle of New Orleans, represented the prosecution while future U.S. Senator and Ambassador to Spain, Pierre Soule, represented the defendant.  As accusations were hurled, tempers grew increasingly short and hilariously childish.  Like a scene out of a slapstick comedy, the opposing barristers began hurling their inkwells and law books at each other.  Angered by such a melee in a court of law, the presiding judge threw both Carleton and Soule in jail for six hours to cool off.  Closing arguments were insufferably long and impassioned.  Soule presented his final speech in his native French.
After eighteen hours, the jury deadlocked and Thompson was set free.  Nevertheless, the guy just couldn't catch a break; he was arrested again for debt based on charges from past creditors.  
In order to placate a very angry Mexico, federal officials were pressured by U.S. Secretary of State, John Forsyth, to enforce U.S. neutrality laws in a more even handed manner.  Ironically, the even handed manner led to the arrest of Captain Hurd himself for pirating a Mexican vessel.  Not surprisingly, he was promptly acquitted by a sympathetic jury.
The incident died down but not the outrage.  To say the least, Mexico felt humiliated over the incident.  "Would not the United States have protested with unexcelled indignation," wrote Mexican Secretary of War Jose Maria Tornel, "if the schooner Grumpus, or any other of their war vessels, had been captured by the Correo and brought at once with its entire crew into a Mexican port?" A month after the trial, the Mexican schooner Bravo fired into Velasco.  The opening shots of the Texas Revolution had begun.